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Friday, August 29, 2014, 11:39

Coal comfort

By Karl Wilson in Sydney / China Daily Asia Weekly

Asia pays price for rapid economic growth as demand for polluting fuels soars

Coal comfort
Coal comfort

A Vietnamese couple assembles rows of coal bricks for sale in the northern province of Bac Ninh. Coal, oil and natural gas — carbon-intensive fossil fuels — provide 82 percent of the energy needs of China, India and ASEAN. (Photo / AFP)

Asurge in coal demand in Asia may be fueling its economy, but analysts are nonetheless raising an alarm over some catastrophic costs.

As the regional demand for coal scales up, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — which make up the majority of greenhouse gases that experts say are the culprits behind climate change — are also expected to rise.

Asia now accounts for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, twice its share of the world’s GDP, and this is projected to rise to 44 percent by 2030, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Asian countries are already facing some of the greatest threats from climate change, warns the Climate Change Vulnerability Index of Maplecroft, a global research and strategic forecasting company.

“So if greater coal consumption pushes global temperatures above 2 C, Asian countries are going to be amongst those hit the hardest,” says James Allan, associate director and head of environment and climate change at Maplecroft.

Today, coal, oil and natural gas — carbon-intensive fossil fuels which are the world’s primary sources of energy — provide 82 percent of the energy needs of China, India and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“The environmental record of the major coal producers in Asia, such as China, India and Indonesia, is very poor and has led to water pollution, deforestation and land contamination,” Allan tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Asian cities also have some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. Sadly, more coal being used for electricity is likely to lead to more premature deaths and long-term health problems, especially for people living in the region’s major cities,” he says.

Greenhouse gas emissions are known to have adverse impacts on human health.

Venkatachalam Anbumozhi, a senior economist with the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), says the reality is that CO2 emissions are the by-product of rising economic activity.

Asia’s economic rise over the last two decades or so has yielded enormous developmental dividends, he adds. “More than 150 million people living on or below $1.25 a day have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade alone,” Anbumozhi says.

“Asia’s economic miracle has been fueled primarily by coal, and that has seen Asia’s carbon emissions double in 20 years and now accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s total,” he says.

Energy consumption in the region is expected to grow to 56 percent between 2010 and 2035, according to ERIA, with most of the increase attributed to China, India and ASEAN countries.

The 2013 Energy Outlook for Asia and the Pacific report by the ADB says CO2 emissions in Asia Pacific as a whole will increase from 13,404 million tons (Mt) in 2010 to 22,112.6 Mt in 2035, which translates to a growth rate of 2 percent per year, slightly slower than the projected growth in energy demand at 2.1 percent annually.

South Asia’s and Southeast Asia’s CO2 emissions are projected to almost double as a result of the expected increase in coal demand, especially in the power generation sector.

The environmental impact of this huge rise could be worse for those living along the coastal regions of Asia.

A United Nations report says hundreds of millions of people are likely to lose their homes as flooding, famine and rising sea levels sweep the region, which is “one of the most vulnerable on Earth to the impact of global warming”.

The report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, says much of the impact will be in the East, Southeast and South Asia. It warns of extreme heat, rain, inland and coastal flooding as well as drought and water scarcity.

The International Energy Agency says Asia’s increased use of electricity — largely powered by coal — will drive economic growth and see more people joining the middle class.

The UN, however, says climate change will slow economic growth, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps in urban centers, which are expected to account for 60 percent of Asia’s population.

“Climate change throughout the 21st century will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, as compared to a baseline without climate change,” says the UN report.

Allan from Maplecroft says: “Without large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS), which still hasn’t been proven commercially, it’s hard to see how any national or global climate change mitigation goals are going to be met.”

CCS, still in its infancy and considered extremely expensive, is a technology that involves capturing CO2 from coal-fired power stations and storing, instead of releasing, it into the atmosphere.

Vinod Thomas, director general of Independent Evaluation at the ADB, says: “The evidence linking manmade climate change to the rise in temperatures causing heat waves and drought is becoming increasingly compelling.

“Asia’s climate has been changing, with temperatures and rainfall, on average, becoming more variable and more extreme,” he says.

“Asia is by far the world’s most populous region, and growing numbers of people are locating in harm’s way, such as in flood-prone urban areas.”

Thomas adds that communities are more vulnerable because of high population densities and, in the case of the poor, a limited capacity to withstand the risks.

“Climate change is aggravating the impacts,” he adds.

Anbumozhi from ERIA says the region’s insatiable appetite for coal has “brought environmental and public health costs that are no longer supportable by the local public and international community”.

“Mega cities and local communities are plagued with crippling smog, which causes 250,000 premature deaths every year,” he says.

In response, he adds, governments are imposing a forced restructuring on the industry (in China), shutting down unlicensed mining (in Indonesia), and announcing limits to consumption by imposing increased levies (in India).

China is currently the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions after overtaking the United States in 2006. In June, it announced that it would put “an absolute cap” on its emissions.

China and the US now account for more than two-fifths of global emissions.

But Anbumozhi says what could change the upward trajectory of CO2 emissions is the implementation of new, clean technologies and new energy policies.

“Every new coal-fired power plant, for example, should be mandated to employ clean coal technology,” he says, adding that the technologies now being used in other parts of the world to reduce emission from coal-fired power stations have the “capacity of bringing the equivalent carbon benefit of removing 1 million cars from the road”.

ERIA estimates that if clean coal technologies were widely deployed in China, India and ASEAN, which collectively account for 60 percent of the global electricity production (much of which relies on coal), some 550,000 new jobs could be generated in the process.

Anbumozhi says wind and solar power should be moved from the “alternative” category to the “conventional” category to attain the environmental and health benefits.

This requires, for instance, governments putting in place incentives and subsidies that will help facilitate the transition to clean energy.

Japan’s proposed offset credit mechanism and the ADB’s joint credit mechanism are emerging examples of what could be done, he says.

The former involves bilateral agreements between Japan and developing countries on greenhouse gas emission reduction. The latter provides grants for low-carbon technologies in ADB-financed projects.

But Anbumozhi fears the push for clean energy will come from other sources, saying it could be “ignited by a combination of events such as several years of extreme weather or a long El Nino”.

“These events could power much stronger consensus about the imminent risks of increased emissions and climate change at the national level. Or a severe energy security crisis could disrupt the flow of oil to Asia.

“Any one of these events could trigger a consensus among governments towards clean energy,” he concludes.
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