USA, China and India are the biggest pollution emitters in the world. According to different research  articles, about 75% of gaseous pollution comes through the chimneys of these countries. If you look at carbon emissions from ships that export products from these countries and flights that operate from their airports, the emissions are even greater.

After a statement by American Ambassador to Pakistan Mr. Richard Olson , where he stated that coal based power generation was against international policy, follow up articles are continuously being published in the print media. His statement also begs the question: Why has the US not shut down its coal based power plant (that now provides 45%  electricity to the US) if it is in violation of international policy?

In an article, Dr. Farrukh Saleem recently claimed that “the world is moving away from coal as Pakistan moves in.” This is hardly justified. According to key world energy statistics 2013 published by International Energy  Agency (IEA), the share of coal in electricity generation was increased to 9138 trillion watt hour (twh)  in 2012 from 2342 twh in 1973.This quadruple increase disproves his argument completely. A white paper on energy titled, “Meeting the Energy Challenge,” was prepared  by the UK Department of Trade and Industry and presented in the British parliament in 2007 stating that coal will be the largest incremental source of power generation in the future. International Energy Agency (IEA) and almost all energy strategy experts are of the view that coal will remain the largest source of electricity generation during the next 60 to 70 years as it has been for the last 70 years. Today, coal provides 41% of total electricity generation in the world.

The development of Europe and America is based on coal-fired power. According to Gregory H. Boyce, CEO Peabody Energy and International Energy Agency, when coal electricity increased by 115%, real U.S gross domestic product more than tripled.  In a single generation, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty; an accomplishment unparalleled in human history. Chinese use of low-cost coal has powered this prosperity, with coal use increasing 260% since 1990 as China’s Gross Domestic Product rose 20 fold in nominal terms.  IEA labeled this prosperity paradox of China a “Coal-fueled economic miracle.”

Pakistan cannot afford to generate electricity from imported furnace oil. Interesting to note here, is that high sulphur furnace oil has been used for power generation in Pakistan and no columnist ever raised the issue of sulphur emissions from oil based power plants.  Pakistan’s gas reserves are depleting and power generation from imported gas will be very costly and unfeasible. Dam construction and nuclear power plant construction require huge capital investment and 10-12 years for completion. The only immediate option we are left with, is coal.

Environmental emissions control is a techno- economic issue. The cost of emission control  heavily depends on the technology used, the size of the plant and plant efficiency. After 2000, clean coal technologies are advancing towards near zero emission targets.  In fact, emission control technologies are an integral part of the power plant design today.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, compared to 1970, key emissions from coal-fueled generation have been reduced by 87% per megawatt hour. Modern coal based power plant designs are modified to control emissions though the modifications have of course, increased capital cost. The term 21st century coal was introduced by the Government of China and the US in 2009, realizing the prime role of coal in the 21st century cleaner energy supply.  Clean coal technology is thus, well established. 

MIT Press published a book titled, “Sustainable Energy: Choosing amongst options,” authored by four leading energy experts to discuss electricity economics. In it the cost comparison of electricity generation in the USA is presented as 31.1-35.9 $/MWh from coal,

29.3-47.4 from natural gas and 50-70 from  nuclear energy. It concludes that cleaner coal power is cheaper than every alternative. Therefore I request Pakistani columnists to carry out comprehensive research  prior to writing anything on an  issue that is so crucial for  the social and economic life of Pakistan.

The government of the Punjab is striving to establish super critical coal-fired power plants in the province that will not only meet National Environmental Quality standards but also more stringent international standards. An American Company, Wilcox Babcok, is a leading manufacturer of such plants. Additionally, India has established many of these plants in the last five years built by Chinese companies.

“Modern Energy For All,” IEA, states that in contrast to concerns about potential climate change, coal and electricity have been and continue to be linked to people’s well being, poverty eradication and  increasing standards of living through energy access and affordable power. A step change in electricity prices on the basis of emissions or any other reason, will have a disastrous impact on the economy as well as on current electricity consumers and the approximately 1.3 billion people who do not have access to electricity. Policy makers must be careful to balance the issue and address both environmental concerns and the need for affordable electricity, particularly with the developing world’s desire to lift itself out of energy poverty.

 The  writer is a  director and professor at the Centre for Coal Technology at Punjab University