Coal-Fired Standoff With Asia Will Test the Paris Climate Deal

The ink has barely had time to dry on the Paris climate deal, but already the agreement faces its first major test. Experts warn that the expansion of coal-fired plants in India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam cannot be allowed to move forward if we want any chance to achieve our pollution reduction goals.

During talks last year, major polluters like China and India gave encouraging signals. While the countries weren’t willing to curtail their growth, they were sensitive to arguments that fossil fuel use must be kept to a minimum. In fact, the Paris climate accords were even called a landmark moment for global cooperation on environmental issues.

Further hope emerged in March when Chinese authorities reportedly ordered 13 provincial governments to suspend building operations on new coal-fired power plants until the end of 2017. At the time, the Chinese energy authority appeared to acknowledge that the number of coal-fired power stations under construction far exceeded demand. Despite this, Greenpeace estimates that around 570 plants could still come online in the near future.

Coal-fired power plants are considered to be the key to economic growth across much of Asia, but they come with a hefty environmental and health cost.

Coal plants emit gasses like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, as well as particulate matter that is linked to a number of respiratory problems. The power plants also churn out mercury, lead, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is, of course, one of the major players in climate change due to its insulating nature. While other gasses, such as methane, have greater insulating powers, carbon dioxide release remains one of the primary drawbacks to using fossil fuels. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that a coal-fired power plant may generate around 3.5 million tons of CO2 per year. 

Despite the decision to halt construction, China, along with India, Vietnam and Indonesia, still appears likely to dramatically increase the number of coal-fired power plants over the next twenty years. Vietnam, in particular, is looking at significant expansions in the near future.

It’s perhaps little wonder then that the president of the World Bank issued a stark warning this month. Jim Yong Kim stated that unless Asian nations curb use of these power plants, the world will not meet its goal of keeping temperatures below 2șc over pre-industrial levels — and ideally 1.5șC.

Kim told the Guardian, “If Vietnam goes forward with 40GW of coal, if the entire region implements the coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished. That would spell disaster for us and our planet.”

The comments, made at a Washington gathering of corporate bosses last week, represent an unusually stark warning from the World Bank, which often favors more temperate language.

Kim went on to say that while it is up to nations like Vietnam and China to halt building coal-fired plants, it is crucial that the rest of the world make it as economically viable as possible to build and use alternative sources of energy.

There are still thousands of people across Asian nations who do not have access to electricity. This energy poverty has been lauded as a driving force behind coal-fire plant production — though much of it also has to do with a desire for the same kind of prosperity the West enjoyed when it was unencumbered by climate change concerns.

Energy companies have also been accused of expanding operations, despite decreased demand.

At the heart of this debate is the question of whether the West can convince developing nations to sacrifice short term growth — by cutting fossil fuel use and investing in renewables — for the potential of a more sustainable future.

Of major importance will be trying to prevent a doublethink on this issue. Take India, for example, which has made a significant commitment to solar energy but still intends to invest in 125GW-worth of new coal fired stations. The country claims that this is the only way to ensure its growth remains on an upward curve.

So what can we do about this issue?

One of the key elements of the COP21 deal was allowing nations to rate each other’s progress. This kind of soft oversight, which was backed by the Obama administration, can help nations like China and India improve their control of energy company operations. Through this mechanism, Europe and the U.S. could help to support developing nations — through monetary and infrastructural investment — and boost confidence in renewables before its too late.

In the mean time, encouraging countries like Indonesia, India, Vietnam and China to at least put new coal-fire projects on hold will be crucial to ensuring the COP21 deal remains viable — and our climate change goals stay alive.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

38 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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M Quann
M Q3 years ago

This news doesn't bode well for our planet. :(:(:(.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn3 years ago

OMG !

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S Gardner
sandy Gardner3 years ago

We are on the precipice and we need to serve every side. We need to keep people on coal until we can provide reliable substitutes.

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Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Coal is proving deadly and China has to stop mining it and using it.

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Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

Agreed Anne Moran

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Muff-Anne York-Haley

What is the matter with these stupid people!!!

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Lisa M.
Lisa M3 years ago

Thanks.

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Debbi -.
Debbi -3 years ago

Why are people so resistant to changes, especially ones that would benefit everyone? Coal mining is filthy unhealthy work. The miners could be trained for better jobs. Shut down the coal mines and put that energy and money into green energy.

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will Campbell
william Campbell3 years ago

Stop trading with these countries if the planet is this important or is it just empty promises

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