Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Can Myanmar afford to burn coal?

Myanmar Times   |   Friday, 01 May 2015
On April 28, The Myanmar Times reported that the Myanmar government has so far signed 12 provisional contracts for coal-powered electricity-generating stations. There have also been numerous oil and gas research and exploration contracts signed in the past year.

For most people in Myanmar, who have no electricity supply or an unreliable supply, this might seem like good news. But can Myanmar, which ranks second as the country most vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, afford to go down the path of fossil-fuel power generation? And will most ordinary people benefit from this kind of power generation?

The fact that the government is seeking to increase electricity generation is a welcome policy shift. While neighbouring countries enjoy electricity provided by Myanmar’s natural resources, people in Myanmar still sit in the dark at night. The previous government was more interested in earning dollars for military spending and luxury lifestyles than in providing electricity to homes and developing Myanmar’s economy.

The new military-backed government has a slightly different agenda. They do want to use some of Myanmar’s natural resources to generate power for domestic use. However, their motivations for doing so might not be completely altruistic and could be leading them to make rushed decisions that will have long-term negative impacts, both environmentally and financially.

One motivation is that they see developing Myanmar’s economy as a matter of restoring national pride. They don’t want to be the poor man of ASEAN any longer. Many people in Myanmar share this view, but they want to see the economy grow through good-quality jobs, not as a source of cheap labour for export factories. Another motivation is political, hoping that the Myanmar people will accept a perceived Chinese-style compromise of economic growth subduing demands for democracy and human rights.

President U Thein Sein highlighted both of these motivations in his inaugural speech to parliament in March 2011. “Regarding the economic might, we have to try for economic growth. If our country is not economically strong, it will face underestimation and unfair treatment from other countries. National economy is associated with political affairs. If the nation enjoys economic growth, the people will become affluent, and they will not be under influence of internal and external elements,” he said at the time.

Electricity generation is key to economic growth. With Myanmar in dire need of power and rich in fossil-fuel resources, it might make sense on face value to develop these resources. However, in its rush to generate electricity, it is ignoring key problems.

Coal is one of the dirtiest fuels in the world. There is no such thing as clean coal. Coal releases not only carbon into the atmosphere – a cause of climate change – but many other pollutants as well. Then there is the damage caused by mining and transport. In Myanmar there are also concerns about how people near big mining and development projects are treated.

No individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change, but science does tell us that climate change will cause more extreme weather events, to which Myanmar is especially vulnerable. The more fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas that Myanmar uses to generate electricity, the more carbon is released, contributing to climate change. This means a greater likelihood of extreme weather events, such as Cyclone Nargis and Cyclone Giri.

It is not only climate change that raises questions about the wisdom of the government’s current approach to power generation. Coal is a fuel of the past. The government is investing in coal at a time when many countries around the world are moving away from it and toward renewables. Foreign companies building and running these power stations will likely tie the people of Myanmar into decades-long contracts for power generation that could end up costing more than clean alternatives. Power stations also require large and expensive infrastructure for the transport of electricity. Economically, it will never be viable to transport centrally generated power to remote and rural areas of the countries, leaving more than half the population unlikely to benefit.

Choosing fossil-fuel-burning power stations to generate electricity today is equivalent to the government choosing phone landlines over mobiles. Mobile-phone technology is starting to enable people to have phones in areas where landlines were never an option. The same must now happen with electricity. For people in more remote areas, their only hope of having electricity is to leapfrog fossil fuels and cables in the same way mobile technology is leapfrogging landlines. Solar, wind and other renewables are the future, not coal.

The fault of this flawed power policy does not solely lie with the government. Behind the scenes foreign companies have been advising and lobbying them on the new national strategy for energy generation. Energy giants don’t make their money from solar power. It isn’t hard to join the dots.