A bowl full of nicely chopped pieces of coal, served with a pair of fine chopsticks. Who wouldn’t want that for lunch on a bright summer day, right? The idea is both equally bizarre and disgusting, but apparently not to everyone. The government of Punjab, in its chest thumping exercise, tweeted a picture a couple of weeks ago to both thank the Chinese government for its support and to celebrate the opening of the 130MW Sahiwal coal powered plant. In the backdrop of the picture were the smiling Sharif brothers reminding people that they are keeping their promise of providing energy, at no matter what cost. Even in my bewilderment, I am glad that at least we live in an era where we get external support for a coal-fired plant, had we been living in a time where biogas and animal excrements were the source of energy, the bowl would have been full of you know what.
But the reality is that coal may be even nastier than the source of biogas.
Beyond the absolute revulsion that one may have at this bowl full of coal, there are also other issues that are quite disturbing. The first is that of coal, environmental pollution and climate change. And before we dismiss climate change as either a hoax or a conspiracy against our development, it is worthwhile to note that China, the very benefactor of our coal-powered plants is phasing out coal from its own soil. As part of China’s commitment to the Paris climate deal, coal is no longer going to be its favourite means of energy generation. Dealing with smog, air pollution and the declining quality of air in its major cities, China is investing heavily in clean energy. But apparently what is not good for them on their own soil is perfectly fine for us here.
The issue of environment, air quality and pollution are no longer the domains of the abstract or just the pastime of those who are in academia. The challenge is very real, and for Pakistan has huge implications on our health and the health of our agriculture. A recent WHO estimate put the number of deaths due to air pollution around four million globally, with a quarter of them (nearly one million) dying in China. Coal-powered plants are among the largest contributors to air pollution. Coal consumption contributes to four of the five leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. The impact on agriculture, water and long-term health is also significant with long-term crop yield losses, soil quality and water contamination among the most immediate effects. However, for some odd reason, any serious discussion of environmental impact of recent investments has been completely lacking and often cast as unpatriotic. Perhaps, eating coal is more patriotic than discussing what effects it may have on the food of our children.
If somehow the health of our people and the agriculture is not a strong enough argument for those in power, the financial argument may speak to their values. They may not have gotten the memo, or seen the international trends, but coal is no longer a financially healthy option for investment or energy generation. With recent advances in wind and solar energy, declining costs of natural gas and divestment from large funds, investment in coal is not particularly attractive for the short or the long term.
The energy crisis of the country is real, and serious action is indeed needed to improve the condition of power generation and access to electricity. Yet, mortgaging our tomorrow through more coal power plants is neither financially prudent nor a sign of sincerity to our country. We ought to think seriously about our land and its people, and protect the lives and well-being of our children and our grandchildren. Filling their bellies with charcoal is hardly the way.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2017.