CPEC’s Environmental Toll

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CPEC’s Environmental Toll

China is bringing coal power to Pakistan, and Pakistanis will pay the environmental price.

CPEC’s Environmental Toll

Gwadar Port in Pakistan

Credit: Shah Meer Baloch

Pakistan’s virgin beaches are located in District Gwadar, which is the major coastal town of Balochistan, and also said to be the epicenter of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But the beaches are in danger of being badly affected by a newly planned 300MW coal power plant in Gwadar. Besides the beaches, there will be a significant impact on human lives and the environment.

Pakistan is already on suffering from climate change. Will the environment and people remain safe as Pakistan carries out plans to invest billions of dollars in imported coal power plants through various projects under CPEC?

CPEC is worth $54 billion, which includes energy, fiber optics, infrastructure, rail and road, and industry-based projects in Pakistan. Announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip to 2015 Pakistan, CPEC aims to connect China’s western province of Xinjiang with the port town of Gwadar. More than half of CPEC spending, $33 billion, will go to 19 energy projects; according to Reuters, “about three-quarters of the newly generated power will come from coal-powered plants.”

Pakistan’s Quest for Energy

Pakistan has long needed more power than it can produce, with its energy deficit currently around 4,000 MW. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Pakistan’s average energy demand is around 19,000 MW, while the country generates only 15,000 MW.

And this demand goes beyond 20,000 MW during the summer months of May to July, when air conditioning systems place an extra burden on the national power grid, often causing load-shedding for many hours. The IEA forecasts that total electricity demand will rise to more than 49,000 MW by 2025 as the country’s population increases. According to the World Bank, only about 67 percent of Pakistanis have access to electricity.

While chairing a meeting on the Cabinet Committee on Energy (CCOE), in April 2017, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif clearly told his federal cabinet and the departments concerned that he wanted to see an end to electricity load shedding by Decem­ber 2017. Sharif was of the view that solving the blackouts would enable his party to secure votes be delivering on a promise it made to the public. Meeting the energy demands of Pakistan and ending the load shedding was a part of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s 2013 general election platform, and it was promised that CPEC would fulfill that claim. The party won the election, but is about to complete its five year tenure in two months without making good on its pledge.

Pakistan has been facing an energy crisis for decades, but most of the political parties who get the opportunity to lead the country find that ending the crisis within their tenure is impossible. Then parties decide not to work for a long-term solution due to the fear that if they don’t win another term, the new ruling party might benefit from the projects they have started.

The ruling PMLN wanted to fulfill its promise no matter what may come, but in the process they struck a hasty deal with China in the shape of CPEC without doing any effective analysis of the projects involved. CPEC definitely would have been a win-win situation if the ruling government had played its cards carefully and cunningly but so far the government seems to be failing. It is accepting a majority of coal power plants under the banner of CPEC to fulfill its energy needs as quickly as possible. Pakistan could ask China to invest in other renewable sources of energy rather than harmful coal power plants, but it has not because the PMLN wanted to solve the energy crisis in a short span of time — in short, during its tenure. That over-reliance on coal will come back to haunt Pakistan in the form of environmental damage.

The Impacts of Coal Power Plants

“Coal power plants have very negative impacts on the environment and health. The most worrying part of the coal projects under CPEC is that there has been a lack of, or equally no, economic cost benefit analysis and Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) of the said coal-based projects in Pakistan,” Malik Amin Aslam, a former state minister for the environment who serves as global vice-president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told The Diplomat.

As of 2012, around 46 percent of Pakistan’s overall emissions came from the energy sector, particularly from coal-fired power plants. Yet as Pakistan doubles down on coal, around the globe, coal consumption fell by almost 2 percent in 2016. China, responsible for half of global coal consumption, reduced its coal consumption by over 1.5 percent. In the United Kingdom, demand for coal dropped by 52.5 percent.

A report published by the Asian Development Bank in February 2018 finds that the 10 gigawatts of generation capacity expected to be brought online under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will increase greenhouse gas emissions substantially, undermining climate change mitigation efforts.

The act of power geeration is not the only concern, either. “Ash handling and disposal problems will also exacerbate negative impacts on the environment,” Dawn reports, citing the ADB report on Pakistan’s power sector.

According to Aslam, “One of the most critical parts of these coal projects is that the coal is being imported from Indonesia. When it arrives Pakistan, as we have an ineffective railway system, so it will to be transported by road to other provinces through trucks or by those trains which have open bogeys.” Aslam dubs such trains “cancer trains” because of the health risks involved.

“When coal makes it to Gwadar or Karachi port then it has to go by trucks or trains with open bogeys to Sahiwal, Punjab, where a 1320 MW coal-based project is under work,” Aslam said. “The Sahiwal project would a disaster.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a “No Objection Certificate (NOC)” to the concerned company for starting work on the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant, after doing the EIA, Saif Anjum, director general of the EPA told The Diplomat. Anjum said that the project “will use the super critical technology which would ensure emissions would be very low.”

But experts say keeping emissions low will not be possible with coal power. “No matter how effective and efficient of technology is used, it would impact the environment because there will be carbon emissions,” Jahanzeb Murad, an energy and environmental expert said.  “The coal plants also release ash and the issue of ash disposal is one of the pressing issues.

“At the end of the last year, the thick layer of smog that blanketed Punjab’s skies was an example of environmental cost. The smog in New Delhi, India … is equally appalling and can be attributed to the coal consumption by the coal-based industries and power plants across the border in Indian Punjab and Rajasthan. They are also sources of pollution that have triggered the smog in Pakistan.”

Murad also said that EPAs are not scientific organizations and generally there is a lack of scientific process in reviewing EIAs and awarding NOCs. The EPAs do not have the internal technical resources to review EIAs, other than some simple or routine assessments. That means they have to rely on external resources if they want to objectively evaluate the technical aspects of EIAs.

EPAs usually come up with a Committee of Experts to review environmental impact assessments. Many of the experts engaged to review EIAs lack an understanding of the EIA process. Although they are experts in their respective subjects, but due to a poor understanding of the EIA, their comments are at times not relevant to the document, explained Murad.

The environmental impact will include adding to Pakistan’s water woes. Environmentalists believe that Pakistan may run out of water in 2025 if steps are not taken to address the water scarcity in the country. “Along with animals and humans, coal power plants will also compete for [water in] Thar and Gwadar,” said Basharat Saeed, an environmentalist and water expert in Pakistan. Thar District in Sindh and Gwadar in Balochistan are well known for their water scarcity. As coal power plants need a lot of water, Saeed thinks that in both districts, where coal power plants will be opened, it would increase the demand for water.

“The carbon emissions of the coal based plants of course would be destructive for the environment and human health, but in Pakistan, where there already is a scarcity of water, the plants will worsen the circumstance because of intensive need of water for coal power plants,” said Saeed.

In addition to all these environmental concerns, “Coal power plants are also not economical,” said Murad. With hydropower, he explained, “The cost starts decreasing after 10 years of its use, and even after 80 years one can renew it easily. But the maximum age limit of a coal power plant is 30 years; sometimes it also can complete its lifetime in 10 years. Once it finishes its tenure and technology reaches its expiry date then it is no more of use. One needs to install another plant.”

Politics and CPEC

Though many political parties have raised questions over the suspicious nature of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), no one has gone to the tribunals yet to challenge the coal-based projects. “We [political parties] should go to tribunals to challenge these hazardous and harmful coal power plants which are perilous for human lives and environment,” said Aslam.

CPEC is an unprecedented initiative in the history of the Pakistan-China friendship, but in business interests are what matter. In the case of this flagship project Pakistan is on the receiving end, so it should evaluate, research, and effectively analyze any project before approving it. Pakistan has a dire need for more energy but it should not opt for coal-based power plants until their impacts have been scientifically researched.

Interestingly, the apex court of Pakistan has been very active in dealing with politically motivated cases and sometimes the court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, has gone the extra mile and taken suo moto notice against many issues, such as the conditions of public hospitals. But Nisar has ignored coal power plants and their dangerous impacts.

“Pakistan should opt for other sources of energy such as hydro, solar, and wind that are environment friendly,” said Aslam. “Only Khyber Pakthunkwa and Gilgit [provinces] have the strength to produce 5,000 MW through hydro. The Khyber Pakthunkwa government offered the central government new projects that would produce 6,000 MW, which was turned down by the central government.”

A naturalist, who also is a good friend, often says that most of the time development comes with the heavy cost of destroying nature and the environment. Keeping the natural beauty of Gwadar and its untouched beaches in mind, the disastrous impacts of development can be minimized if developing or underdeveloped states, like Pakistan, opt instead for environment- and nature-friendly projects.

Shah Meer Baloch is a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign and Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/IFA), and a freelance writer. His research focus is on Asia-Pacific politics, Balochistan issues, extremism and human rights.