The Coal Battle Shifts to Southeast Asia

As China and India shift away from coal, the fight to end use of this dirty fuel is moving south

Coal is on the way out years ahead of schedule in China and India. A recent report by CoalSwarm (an Earth Island Project), Sierra Club, and Greenpeace showed that, in 2016, that Asia’s two fastest growing economies are shutting down mines, scrapping coal plant plans, and building renewables far faster than nearly anyone expected just a few years ago.

coal barge on a riverPhoto by Andrew Taylor/WDMA coal barge on the Mahakam river in Central Kalimantan. President Joko Widodo’s plans to increase power supply in Indonesia is focused almost entirely on coal use.

“In China, there’s an almost complete stop to permitting of new coal plants,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, a China-based coal and air pollution expert for Greenpeace. “In India, there is weekly news about coal projects being canceled [or] already started projects being in distress. Wind and solar cost competitiveness has happened so fast, very few people foresaw it, or adjusted their strategies in time.”

However, there is still a while before we can say coal is, truly, on the way out in Asia. That’s because Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines — the three largest countries in Southeast Asia, with a combined population of over 300 million — are still planning to use coal to electrify their nations. Between them, these three countries are planning to build some 210 new coal-fired plants in the coming years. If all these coal plants are built, they could lock in decades of greenhouse gas emissions, create massive air pollution, and result in the expansion of mines across pristine forests and other natural landscapes across the world.

In Indonesia, for example, coalmines shut down due to collapsing global demand, have left waterways across the country’s coal mining regions poisoned, and vast, previously productive, agricultural regions unfarmable. But instead of adapting to the new reality, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo decided to replace this lost foreign demand with local consumption. His electrification plans for Indonesia focus almost entirely on coal, and they are massive —117 new coal-fired power plants throughout the country, more than 35,000MW of power generation capacity in total.

However, these plans have run into a major roadblock. Grassroots resistance. There has been near constant opposition to one of the largest plants, the 2000-megawatt Batang plant in Central Java. Earlier this year, the Indonesian government withdrew the license of the proposed Cirebon coal plant, which has also faced strong opposition. Even existing coal plants aren’t in the clear, as there have been protests against pollution from the Tanjung Kasam plant in Batam.

Other Southeast Asian countries too, are seeing similar pushback from activists.

Like Indonesia, Vietnam has ambitious plans to expand coal power in the coming years, and has 56 plants in various stages of planning and implementation. Together these plants are expected to burn nearly 40 million tons of coal a year. Local activists’ efforts to fight these plants have been bolstered by reports that show Vietnam’s air pollution as the second deadliest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

In the Philippines, which has 52 proposed plants in the works, environmentalists played an active role under former Environment Secretary Regina Lopez, who suspended or cancelled dozens of mines during her 10 month long tenure that ended in May. Public resistance to many of these plants continues and is said to be so strong in certain areas that the plants there are not likely to be finished.

This is not an isolated trend – in fact, grassroots activism has played a major role in stemming the proliferation of coal plants all across Asia.

Civic pressure also made a difference in authoritarian China, where growing concerns – and protests – about air quality pushed the Communist Party-led Government to shut down plants far ahead of schedule. (And in Europe, grassroots pressure has led several banks to stop lending money to coal plants overseas.)

“Grassroots opposition has forced governments, development institutions, and companies to consider the true cost of coal-fired power plants and challenged the false assumptions that coal is cheap, necessary, or wanted,” says Nicole Ghio, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s International Climate and Energy Campaign.

Of course, climate commitments and pro-clean energy policies also help. One of the big challenges is that renewables are far more expensive in Southeast Asia than they are in China and India, where they are already nearing cost-parity with fossil fuels.

“In Indonesia, the cost of solar power is two times what it is Australia, and three times India,” says Myllyvirta. “There’s absolutely no basis for that, other than the fact that the market hasn’t taken off, and reached the scale where costs can come down.”

But Myllyvirta believes that, similar to what we saw in India and China, this could change. “It can happen very fast,” she says, adding that competitive bidding could be the trigger that makes coal no longer so economically appealing as compared to renewables across the region.

Adding to this clean energy potential is fact that all three countries have vast renewable resources, whether it is geothermal in the Philippines and Indonesia, or solar in the entire region. In fact, many believe it is only a matter of time before coal becomes prohibitively expensive across Asia.

“It is very short-sighted in those countries to continue to build new coal plants,” says Ted Nace, the co-founder of CoalSwarm. “Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines simply need to look to India, where the solar has become the cheapest option for new power. We expect to see a very rapid fall-off in new coal plant development by the end of the decade in all three countries.”

It won’t be easy, but the wind is, finally, on the back of grassroots activists looking to stem coal mining and power plant construction across the region, and help bring about a cleaner future for Asia.

“The beauty of this movement is that with costs for clean energy dropping so quickly, you don’t really need to defeat a plant — you only need to delay it for a couple of years,” Nace says. “The market will take care of the rest.”

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