Sunday, July 10, 2016

Indonesia - Commentary: 'Airpocalypse' is not the Future We Want

The equation is simple: Indonesia needs more energy. Millions still have no access to electricity and in ever-growing cities, and power supply is unreliable at best.

That’s why the government has now pledged to increase energy output by 35 GW, based on the assumption that demand for electricity will grow by 8 percent a year–a prediction which many have criticized as widely over-ambitious.

Read the fine print, though. What is more worrying for Indonesia’s future is that two-thirds of that 35 GW are expected to come from coal.

Most of Indonesia’s electricity already comes from coal anyway, and the price being paid for this is clear to see. Water sources are polluted in Kalimantan, farmers are being excluded from their land in Java and those unfortunate enough to live near a coal-fired power plant run the risk of having their health permanently damaged by the plant’s emissions.

A study carried out by Harvard University, commissioned by Greenpeace, has looked at the health impact of air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Indonesia. Its findings show that existing power plants cause an estimated 6,500 premature deaths every year, from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases.

If the government goes ahead with their plan to allow more than 100 new coal-fired plants, this number could rise to 28,300 people dying before their time every year.

Some might ask, rightfully, “where is the data on air pollution?” Regretfully, air quality monitoring hardly exists in the country, and controls over power plants are lax.

Indonesia, like its neighbors in Southeast Asia, allows new coal-fired power plants to emit 5-10 times more major pollutants than China, the US and the EU, and it does not require emission controls for SO2 or NOx to be installed in most power plants.

Greenpeace has talked to villagers and medical workers in villages near a coal-fired plant in Java. Respiratory problems are common, with people frequently complaining of coughs and shortness of breath, all year round. Many patients are very small children.

It is not only families living nearby who suffer. The pollution from coal-fired power plants spreads over a large area, hundreds of kilometers from the power plant.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, recognizes in particular the dangers of very fine particles, known as PM2.5, in these emissions.  The particles are so small that they enter the lungs and the bloodstream, making them more toxic and harmful than larger particles. Most of the health impacts of coal emissions are caused by PM2.5.

You have only to look at China to see how dangerous coal pollution can be. For many years, China’s reliance on coal pushed the country’s air pollution to crisis levels.

Beijing has experienced several days of what’s become known as "Airpocalyse"–days when the city is covered in a thick, choking smog and PM2.5 levels rose to nearly 30 times the level that the WHO deems to be safe. Researchers estimate air pollution in China kills on average 4,000 people a day, with coal burning the principal cause.

It’s no wonder that popular anger has forced the Chinese government to reduce coal burning, imposing a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants until the end of 2017.

That is not the future we want for Indonesia. Yet as China begins to turn its back on coal, Indonesia seems ready to buy their second-hand technology to build coal plants here.

India has taken over China’s unenviable reputation for pollution–the four most polluted cities in the world are in India. Its electricity generation is also built on coal, but that has failed to keep the lights on.

The Indian government now has plans to install 100 GW of solar power by 2022–20 times what is currently in operation. And the best news of all? The country’s energy minister, Piyush Goyal, says it’s a more cost-effective option than coal.

Good news from Indonesia, too. President Jokowi has announced a moratorium on coal mining. This new policy is expected to change the direction of development into a greener future.

Indonesia does not deserve, and cannot afford, a future built on coal. It is time to break free and take a new path, one that is built on our abundant renewable energy resources.

Hindun Mulaika

Hindun Mulaika is the Climate and Energy Team Leader at Greenpeace Indonesia

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