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It seems our Prime Minister is fixated on building coal-fired power plants. Since coming to power soon after the May elections last year, Nawaz Sharif has initiated a number of coal-fired power plants in the country in order to alleviate the energy crisis, notwithstanding the fact that coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

In smog choked China, where coal power once ruled, a “war against pollution” has been declared by Premier Li Keqiang to highlight the message that China must not only shut down coal-fired furnaces, but also shift to a more sustainable kind of development. Premier Li described China’s massive air pollution problem as “nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development” in his address to the opening session of the National People’s Congress in March this year.

Since we tend to follow China’s lead, given our long friendship with them, why not heed their warnings about coal? Currently, our Prime Minister is not listening. Along with ex-President Asif Zardari, he jointly inaugurated the construction of a $1.6 billion coal plant in Thar. A 600-megawatt coal plant was also given the go-ahead in Jamshoro, while last week the PM gave approval for two additional coal-fired power plants to be set up in the Gadani Power Park.

In the mean time, his brother Shahbaz Sharif is planning to add 7,800 MW of coal fired energy by setting up six coal power plants in the Punjab. Pakistan Railways is already acquiring the high traction locomotives and wagons to transport an estimated 36 million tons of coal per annum by the year 2018 when they say the coal-fired power plants would become operational.

The country’s energy crisis has to be solved, but using the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel is not the answer

With the PM’s blessings and faced with a growing bill for imported oil that stands at $14bn (and a rapidly dwindling supply of natural gas), the country’s private and public oil plants are switching over to coal. There is an ambitious plan to upgrade the country’s ports to handle the coal supply. Khwaja Asif, the Minister for Power and Water, freely admits that “This is a major and historic fuel-switching plan, as we generate zero (per cent) from coal compared to India, which generates 69 per cent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants.” He seems to ignore the fact that India started developing its coal industry back in the 1970s when the central government nationalised all the coal mines and long before climate change came on the global agenda.

According to Greenpeace, a third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal, making coal fired power plants the biggest source of man made CO2 emissions. “This makes coal energy the single greatest threat facing our climate.”

Supporters of coal energy say that the amount Pakistan is producing would be insignificant on the global scale, but they probably are not aware that attempts will be made to curb global carbon emissions at the UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris next year. The UN’s scientific voice on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest assessment report (known as AR5) released this year, has put considerable emphasis on the need for more renewable energy including solar, wind and hydropower.

The report says emissions of greenhouse gases can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas (from shale gas reserves), although the gas will itself ultimately have to be phased out.

According to national climate expert Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry who has drawn out some of the implications of the AR5 report for Pakistan, “In spite of our very low greenhouse gas emissions contribution, our role as a responsible member of the global community in combating climate change needs to be fully taken into consideration while responding to climate change mitigation issues.”

He pointed out that the “energy sector in Pakistan is contributing around 51pc of our total emissions followed by the agriculture sector’s 39pc. Pakistan cannot afford to ignore mitigation efforts — at least, in these sectors.”

Dr Chaudhry warns that “The (IPCC) report has rightly highlighted the importance of moving away from coal-based power generation … surely the indications are that the time may not be far when the countries not following green energy path would be penalised, as with a carbon tax on exports, etc.”

He advises the government of Pakistan to “be cautious when considering any lock-in in coal power generation technology for next 25-30 years” and to go for a “mix of power sources with increased reliance on hydro/renewable and less on fossil fuel particularly on coal.”

International experts say that the clean energy world that the IPCC seeks need be no more than 15 years away. According to Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, California, and director of its atmosphere and energy programme, “Wind, Water and Solar power (WWS) can be scaled up cost-effectively to meet the world’s energy demands, ending dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power.”

He further adds, “Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that of today.”

Critics might point out that installing wind, hydro-power and solar energy is expensive right now, but coal is not exactly cheap either. Both the price of coal and the cost of building coal plants have risen over the past few years, more than 50pc in some instances. And consider the other costs: from health care cost to environmental destruction.

Future carbon dioxide regulations, which the world will enact soon, will also dramatically increase the cost of coal. With the cost of renewables now equal to or less than the cost of coal in many countries, building new coal-fired power plants is a poor investment for our future.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014