Mainstream media is talking about Beijing leading the UN Climate Change pact, since US President Trump had withdrawn from it. But, China is expected to construct massive coal power plants in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Beijing remains unlikely to cancel them even at risk of losing a leadership role in the environmental movement.
Leaders of European Union member states stood aghast when United States President Donald J. Trump had withdrawn the United States from the 2015 Paris Accord last week.
The United Nations climate change pact was an agreement ratified by 148 nations to reduce carbon emissions.
The Chinese media had weighed in with the state-run newspaper Global Times blasting Trump for alleged “selfishness and irresponsibility,” while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment “to fight against climate change.”
Coal burns China’s green image
China deserves praise for supporting green-friendly initiatives in recent years. The world’s second-largest economy has emerged as the top renewable (alternative energy) supplier in the world.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had also pledged to shut down 100 coal power plants nationwide. But don’t expect China’s coal sector to vanish anytime soon. Chinese coal-related companies are shifting operations abroad.
The Belt and Road Initiative, or Obor, that was introduced by President Xi in 2013, is expected to offer golden opportunities for the heart of coal country.
Obor aims to build major infrastructure projects, such as transportation networks, logistics centers, industrial zones and energy hubs in the countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
One of the flagship projects would be the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which would develop Pakistan’s rural regions of the Baluchistan province.
CPEC – coal hub for Eurasia
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Xi have enjoyed friendly relations since launching CPEC together in 2015. The two nations hold a shared vision to construct new highways, railways and upgrade logistics for industrial zones in Pakistan.
Nevertheless, Pakistan continues to struggle with severe energy shortages, while the World Bank reports that nearly 40% of Pakistani households have no access to electricity.
Ironically, the Thar region holds some of the world’s largest reserves of coal. Meanwhile, Chinese companies can play a pivotal role to provide more power to Pakistanis, along with factories expected to open up in the country.
Additionally, China is a global leader for financing and constructing coal power plants. Beijing has already green-lighted coal projects for CPEC.
The Chinese government and banks have agreed to provide loans and financing, worth up to US$5.8 billion to build five new coal power plants in CPEC that are expected to be completed by 2019.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform said coal-fired capacity was forecast to reach 7,560 megawatts (MW) in CPEC. It’s top priority the Port Qasim (Coal) Power project – 1,320MW in Sindh province – would provide electricity for Karachi.
Last month, a 660mW unit Sahiwal coal power plant was switched on in Punjab province. Beijing officials have addressed pollution concerns by touting upgrades on clean coal technologies.
“After completion of the power station, it will have the largest installed capacity of Pakistan’s clean coal-fired power plants,” said China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunqing at a press conference. “The annual power generation is expected to be more than 9 billion kW to meet local demand of nearly 10 million people.”
Blowing pollution beyond borders
Constructing coal power plants, even clean coal ones, has an adverse impact on public health. Local medical caregivers have reported an increasing number of cases of asthma, long tissue damage, bronchial infections and heart problems in the CPEC area.
Smog has become more prevalent since Chinese coal companies have swarmed into CPEC. The biggest players are Chinese coal plant manufacturers, engineering and construction companies.
But Pakistani will have some benefits from the opening up of new coal power plants. They can expect to witness a manufacturing boom and cash in on exporting goods abroad with better logistics operations.
Pakistan, a developing nation, is pursuing an industrialization drive to improve the standard of living for its 200 million citizens, since many are struggling under primitive and impoverished conditions.
Coal is here to stay
Beijing is prepared to keep the domestic coal sector alive and well. In the Chinese government’s five-year plan (2016-2020), coal-fired capacity is forecast to rise from 900 gigawatts to as high as 1,100GW by 2020, which is larger than Canada’s total power capacity.
China has signed contracts to invest over US$15 billion on coal projects in the next 15 years.
Let’s also take closer look at Beijing’s agreement on the Paris Accord, because China is not required to reduce overall carbon emissions until reaching a “peak” in 2030.
The Energy Information Agency anticipates the nation’s carbon emissions to increase 32% through 2040, while the Global Commission on Economy and Climate foresees China’s emissions to rise 34% by 2030 over 2012-levels.
Not ready to lead
If Beijing hopes to ascend to a leadership role on Climate Change action, the government must make a tough decision on coal.
Greenpeace said in a press release that “coal is the single greatest threat to our climate.”
Yet, Chinese coal companies are seeking a compromise by upgrading power plants with clean coal technologies to reduce carbon emissions.
Such measures sound reasonable, but some environmental groups who are fighting against fossil fuels may not support clean coal under any circumstances.
Hence, China seems unlikely to bow down and to shutter coal even at the expense of not leading on climate change.