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Chinese-backed Pakistani coal plants face fierce criticism due to environmental impact

Image credit: DT

The planned construction of a dozen coal-fired power plants in Pakistan, led by Chinese investment, has attracted criticism from energy experts and environmentalists.

Officials at the Water and Power Ministry have said Chinese companies and their partners are expected to spend around $15bn (£11.6bn) over the next 15 years to construct the plants.

Mohammed Younus Dagha, the former federal secretary for water and power, has defended the plans, insisting that the coal plants are part of a larger plan.

That is the $54bn China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which includes spending of about $33bn on a total of 19 energy projects, including coal-fired and renewable power plants, transmission lines and other infrastructure.

“Hefty investment under the CPEC project has held out hopes of significantly spiking domestic power generation (by) around 6,000 megawatts by the end of 2018,” Dagha said.

Combined, the projects will eventually generate 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, which the government says is urgently needed.

About three-quarters of the newly generated power will come from coal-powered plants and the government insists that these will be fitted with the latest technology to reduce pollution and climate-changing emissions.

Environmentalists and energy experts have lambasted the plans for coal-fired plants as a waste of money that will badly damage the environment and tarnish Pakistan’s image as one of the lowest-carbon emitters.

“Such plants would only accelerate the rising trajectory of the country’s carbon emissions, (accelerating) environmental degradation that costs billions of rupees to the national exchequer annually,” said Syed Jawad Hussain Shahzad, an energy expert at the Comsats Institute of Information Technology in Islamabad.

Pakistan has long needed more power than it can produce, with the energy deficit currently around 4,000MW. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), average energy demand in the country is around 19,000MW, against generation of around 15,000MW.

Demand soars beyond 20,000MW during peak summer months of May to July, when air conditioning systems place an extra burden on the national power grid, often causing power cuts.

The IEA forecasts that total electricity demand will rise to more than 49,000MW by 2025 as the country’s population increases.

Only 67 per cent of Pakistan’s approximately 190 million people have access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

To improve access and keep pace with economic growth, the country needs to invest between 3.7 per cent and 5.5 per cent of its GDP each year in increasing electrical production, the bank said in a report on South Asian infrastructure published in 2013. Part of the motivation for building coal-powered plants lies in the availability of the fuel within Pakistan.

The federal minister for planning, development and reform, Ahsan Iqbal, said that the sprawling desert region of Tharparkar in southern Pakistan, home to some of the world’s largest coal reserves, cannot be left unexploited.

“Pakistan must tap these unutilised vast underground reserves of 175 billion tonnes of coal, adequate to meet the country’s energy needs for several decades, for powering the country’s economic wheel, creating new jobs and fighting spiking unemployment and poverty,” Iqbal said.

Pakistan currently ranks 135th in the list of global emitters of carbon on a per capita basis, accounting for less than one per cent of total global carbon emissions, according to World Bank data.

Neighbouring country India is currently planning to build nearly 370 coal-fired power plants. A recent study from the University of California found that their construction would make it impossible for the country to reach its climate change commitments agreed upon under the Paris Agreement. 

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