A highly respected conservation organisation in the UK, the RSPB, just released a planning document which provides a close-to-zero target for UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, Thailand is still locked into a coal future, despite clean coal being illusory and despite encouragement by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to embrace more solar. According to the World Bank, a similar attitude across Asia would end the world.
Background: Asian Coal Plans -> Planetary Destruction
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA's) ‘Thailand Electricity Security Assessment 2016’ was written in cooperation with the Thai government and is unambiguous about its coal use. Thailand sources much of its electricity from Myanmar, and it intends to be 85% energy independent by 2020, with the other 15% being imported hydropower. At the same time, it will need to reduce its gas usage, due to falling reserves, from 65% of the mix to 37% by 2036. This means coal will increase from 20% to 23% of the supply, rising in absolute terms from 2.4 GW to 7.4 GW by 2036.
The author recognises that the West is also a major consumer of coal, especially the US and Germany, and that asking Asian countries to move away from coal may be hypocritical and neo-colonial – unless a clean low-cost technological alternative is also being offered. But, what is clear is that if Thailand’s coal strategy is implemented together with those of other Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, China, and India, this will cause the destruction of not just Bangkok but, according to the World Bank, the destruction of the planet as we know it. Speaking of South Asian and East Asian energy plans, the Director of the World Bank last month stated, “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.”
China plans to implement 150GW of new coal plants by 2020, a reduction from 270GW in the past half-decade. India will increase its coal by 125GW. Indonesia is planning to double the number of new coal plants, to about 25GW. While these might make Thailand’s increase of 5GW seem small, according to the World Bank, this attitude will exceed the 2 Celsius maximum increase necessary for the world to prevent up to a billion climate refugees by 2050, at a cost of trillions of dollars. According to John Roome, the World Bank’s senior climate change official, Asia’s coal plans will blow the entire planet’s carbon budget:
“If all of the business-as-usual coal-fired power plants in India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all came online that would take up a very significant part – in fact almost all – of the carbon budget… It would make it highly unlikely that we would be able to get to 2C.”
To underline what this would mean for Bangkok, a map from a previous Special Circumstances column shows the flooding of downtown Bangkok under the 2 Celsius regime, ending the city’s viability as the capital of Thailand and triggering millions of climate refugees from just one city:
Figure: End of Bangkok (Input = 2ºC Increase = 4.7 meter increase in sea levels [Courtesy Climate Central] – not adjusted for rainy season)
First Low-to-Zero Visions of Energy Production
The first ‘low-to-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions planning document to emerge was probably the 2011 publication of the World Wildlife Fund’s ‘The Energy Report’, which suggested a timeframe of 2050 to achieve close-to-100% (actually 95%) renewable energy, with a global energy mix involving both considerable energy savings and a massive reduction in fossil fuels. The report notes that according to more mainstream central models (Thomas C.D. et al, 2004, Extinction risk from climate change. Nature, Vol 427, No. 8), 15-37% of the planet’s species will be lost – man-made speciecide on a massive scale.
Figure: The WWF Ecofys Energy Scenario (The WWF’s ‘The Energy Report’, p. 24)
The WWF report makes 10 recommendations to achieve this scenario:
CLEAN ENERGY: Promote only the most efficient products. Develop existing and new renewable energy sources to provide enough clean energy for all by 2050.
GRIDS: Share and exchange clean energy through grids and trade, making the best use of sustainable energy resources in different areas.
ACCESS: End energy poverty: provide clean electricity and promote sustainable practices, such as efficient cook stoves, to everyone in developing countries.
MONEY: Invest in renewable, clean energy and energy efficient products and buildings.
FOOD: Stop food waste. Choose food that is sourced in an efficient and sustainable way to free up land for nature, sustainable forestry and biofuel production. Everyone has an equal right to healthy levels of protein in their diet – for this to happen, wealthier people need to eat less meat.
MATERIALS: Reduce, re-use, recycle – to minimize waste and save energy. Develop durable materials. And avoid things we don't need.
TRANSPORT: Provide incentives to encourage greater use of public transport, and to reduce the distances people and goods travel. Promote electrification wherever possible, and support research into hydrogen and other alternative fuels for shipping and aviation.
TECHNOLOGY: Develop national, bilateral and multilateral action plans to promote research and development in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
SUSTAINABILITY: Develop and enforce strict sustainability criteria that ensure renewable energy is compatible with environment and development goals.
AGREEMENTS: Support ambitious climate and energy agreements to provide global guidance and promote global cooperation on renewable energy and efficiency efforts.
While these recommendations are sound in principle, some of them are difficult in practice. For example, there are no market mechanisms at present for avoiding waste in the food chain due to blemishes on products, though there are moves towards government initiatives in this area, nor are there widely endorsed movements for large numbers of meat-eating people to eat less meat. The recommendation to avoid things we do not need also goes against market solutions and over a century of consumerism and increasingly targeted advertising. Nonetheless, the report marked a watershed and has been followed by other reports.
The UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ 2050 Energy Vision
For those who might wonder why the RSPB’s recently released report has had such an impact in the UK, it is important to recall the average British person’s interest in birds dates back to at least the time of Darwin and the Galapagos Islands’ finches, which led to the naturalist’s theory of evolution. Founded in 1889, the RSPB has 1,300 employees, 18,000 volunteers, and one million members, supervising 200 nature reserves, making it Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity. In fact, SC has been an ardent student of both British and foreign from an early age.
The RSPB’s interest is similar to that of the WWF’s in that it is concerned by the decline of 60% of the UK’s bird species in the last 50 years due to man-made causes, and the RSPB is directly interested in the impact of hydro and wind on bird species. It also sees a 2 Celsius increase in global warming as equating to a disaster for bird life. Using the UK Government’s DECC 2050 Pathways Calculator, a scenario modelling tool, the RSPB has developed not one but three potential scenarios for the UK’s energy future that achieve the Paris Agreement’s 2050 climate targets while posing minimal risk for the UK’s wildlife. Scenario 2 sees almost no use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is associated with fossil fuels and unproven. For each scenario, detailed appendices provide breakdowns of the needed installations. For example, for Scenario 2, 1.7 GW of CCS technology is required, for one demo CCS plant in the UK.
Scenario 1: Mixed renewables
Scenario 2: High Marine Renewables
Scenario 3: High Onshore Renewables
Not just Thailand, but all of ASEAN and Asia need to be realistic about the future. A Business-As-Usual scenario will cost Thailand billions of dollars, ASEAN tens of billions of dollars, and Asia trillions of dollars by 2050 due to the impacts of global climate change. It will cost the planet’s ecosystem and wildlife even more.
The International Energy Agency’s ‘Thailand Electricity Security Assessment 2016’ report strongly recommends that Thailand develop the infrastructure to make solar more attractive, including more widespread feed-in mechanisms and the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels. This also implies greater involvement of civil society in discussions of Thailand’s energy plans, including use of a Thai version of the UK’s DECC 2050 Pathways Calculator, which the UK is, in fact, assisting Thailand in developing.
Ultimately, Thailand and the other Asian countries have to adopt game plans which abandon coal and other fossil fuels, not increase their usage. There are only two ways to do this – greatly expand renewables or implement an accelerated development and implementation programme for fusion, making the building of the first commercial fusion reactor feasible within the next decade. And there is only one way to make these courses of action happen in time to save the planet’s ecosystem – for principal Asian countries to step up and meet the challenge of providing leadership.