Pakistan: Energy at The Cost of Environment?

“The Chinese have figured out that they have a giant environmental problem. Folks in Beijing, some days, literally can’t breathe. Over a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of air pollution.” Joe Biden

Pakistanis have witnessed the deterioration of air quality in Pakistan over the years and are now standing closer to Beijing in terms of air pollution. From beautiful sunsets and misty mornings in the 90’s, today the sky is rarely clear and pristine. I always wondered why the clouds are not as crisply defined in Pakistan as they are in the United States of America. Driving on the motorway or walking around the streets of bigger cities, I can feel congestion and suffocation, even if I am standing in the middle of an empty grassy field. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) data, Lahore has a yearly average of 68 µg/m3 of PM2.5, which corresponds to a 155-Unhealthty Air Quality Index (AQI). The worst air quality reading in the world was noted recently (November 2017) in Lahore, which went as high as 538ug/m3 before the rains brought some much needed respite. These readings have ranked Lahore amongst the unhealthiest cities in the world in terms of air pollution.

Lahore isn’t the only city suffering from air pollution. According to the Pakistan Medical Association, allergic and respiratory diseases are spreading in Karachi at a fast pace because of rampant smoke and toxins in the air. A study conducted in the US, spanning over 15 years concluded that cities and countries with air pollution had a 26% higher death rate compared to the cities with less pollution. Globally, around two million people lose their lives annually due to respiratory and allergic problems stemming from air pollution.

What is the cause of air pollution? It includes a variety of factors: Emissions from automobiles, factories, chemicals, garbage, dust particles, coupled with lesser rain and rising temperatures. However, one of the biggest causes of air pollution is the usage of “Coal” to produce energy at power plants and coal based industries. According to the American Lung Association, 76% of the emissions from coal fired plants can cause respiratory diseases. Annually, a typical coal power plant emits 14,100 tons of SO2, 10,300 tons of NOx, 500 tons of small airborne particles and 170 pounds of mercury. Is it dangerous? To put this into perspective, studies reveal even a 1/17th teaspoon of mercury deposited in a 25-acre water body can make it hazardous for the fish to survive. 

Keeping in mind the hazards of coal fired power plants, it seems distressing that the biggest avenue of future growth of Pakistan, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) involves a massive investment in coal fired power plants. According to the Ministry of Waters & Power, Chinese companies are estimated to be investing around $15 billion in the coming 15 years to build around a dozen coal fired power plants of varying sizes all over Pakistan. This can be a source of massive air pollution and toxin emissions, which can considerably worsen the air quality in the country.

Why would Pakistan not opt for other renewable energy resources when it is already established that coal plants can lead to hazardous results? Why despite repeated criticism is coal being heavily utilized for energy production and more than 100,000MW are being produced through coal plants in India alone? India to gain energy efficiency all across the country, initially invested heavily in solar panels and windmills. However due to higher costs and theft of panels, majority of the solar panels and windmills powered areas suffered from load shedding. India, now has been focusing on mitigating environmental hazards related to coal fired plants. Pakistan and China are following the footsteps of India, since, the Indian example shows that reliance on renewable sources such as solar and wind is preferable but may be impractical due to affordability and long-term maintenance in the case of developing countries.

Armond Cohen, the head of the Clean Air Task Force said, “Coal will be central to economic modernization in the developing world, where most energy supply will be built in the next three decades. Coal will also have a significant residual role in much of the OECD. Coal is not going away. We need to begin to use it without emitting significant carbon dioxide, and quickly. If we don’t, the risk to global climate is immense, and likely irreversible. It’s that straightforward. People who wish otherwise, and simply hope for the demise of coal, are not facing the facts.” Coal is indispensable to the growth of Pakistan’s energy starved industrial sector. If coal fired power plants are the solution to an energy starved developing country, then, is there a way to mitigate environmental hazards associated with them? Yes, there are several technologies invented and implemented to control the coal fired emissions by China itself. Beijing has been working on clean coal plants since 2007, when it crossed the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emission limits in 2007. According to research, Electrostatic Precipitator (ESP) can control 95%-99% of CO2 emissions. Another important addition is the Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD), which are basically chimneys that can absorb Sulphur and Mercury before these can be released into the environment.

In the case of CPEC, Pakistan and the Punjab government have issued NOCs to assure the installation of ESP to control CO2 emissions. However, there is a need for installation of FGDs as well to absorb mercury and sulfur content from the plants. The very first project, with an estimated cost of $1.8 billion, located near Sahiwal has been completed and will inject 1,320 megawatts (MWs) of electricity into the national grid. The project has ESP installed, however there are a few things being highlighted by critics, i.e., no control over sulphur and mercury emissions and proximity to the main city.

Overall, there are varying reviews about whether CPEC, is more beneficial for the nation’s prosperity or detrimental for the environment. Pakistan, being an energy deficient developing country is in dire need of low cost and long term energy supply and CPEC is providing that solution. The country needs to work on two policies to assure minimum possible environmental damage by the coal fired plants. The first and foremost policy direction would be the compulsion of installing FGD and ESP on all coal fired plants. Secondly, the proximity of these plants to major cities can create an environmental and health hazard for the locals living there. Locations should be identified with minimum possible interaction between gas emissions, solid waste and human, animal and plant life. CPEC in its entirety cannot be disparaged as it is an inevitable need of the hour for the development of Pakistan. If quality controls are implemented successfully over coal fired power plants under CPEC, it can uplift the economy providing low-cost energy without damaging the environment.

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