By Imelda V. Abano
Home to more than 2.5 billion people, countries in South and Southeast Asia will need to decarbonize their energy systems by 2050 through rapid increase of renewable energy use in line with the long-term temperature goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
A new report by Berlin-based research institute Climate Analytics on decarbonizing South and Southeast Asia released on June 20, 2019 in Bonn, Germany shows that both regions need to and can reach at least 50% share of decarbonized electricity generation by 2030 and 100% by 2050, and phase out coal for power generation by 2040. This can be achieved with a wide range of renewable energy and storage technologies, with wind and solar being the most important technologies to be expanded at large scale.
“ Challenges that South and South East Asian nations face in transitioning to renewables are very country-specific and depend on their economic as well as geographic circumstances,” said report author Paola Yanguas Parra, policy analyst at Climate Analytics.
However, Parra explained to Philippine Environews that directing investments towards building new coal power plants, which is the case for many countries in the region, is a big barrier.
South and South East Asian nations are among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change impacts, some of which are already being acutely felt at the current 1°C level of warming. Science shows that impacts will accelerate, become much worse and endanger lives and sustainable development even at 2°C warming unless all governments act to reduce emissions to keep within the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit.
The Paris Agreement included a provision for developed countries to provide financial support for emerging states to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, starting at US$100 billion a year from 2020.
The report added that in order to align energy plans with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, and to limit the risk of stranded fossil-fuel assets, countries in South and South East Asia will need to reverse the current trend of expanding coal-fired generation capacity and instead urgently implement policies to enable a fast decarbonization of the electricity mix.
Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil-fueled generation in most of the world and renewables offer a faster and cheaper way to increase access to affordable clean energy for millions of people.
“By decarbonising their energy systems, South and South East Asian countries can make a fundamental difference in global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, and will reap large economic and sustainable development benefits by doing so,” said report author Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics.
“The 1.5°C limit means greatly reduced risk of drought and water stress in South and South East Asian, which would contribute to achieving zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and clean water and sanitation,” said Dr Fahad Saeed, climate scientist at Climate Analytics and another of the report’s authors.
“It would also reduce the risk of flooding for large numbers of people living in coastal regions, as well as extreme heat that can otherwise reach intolerable levels for human health and labour productivity, particularly in densely populated cities in South Asia,” Saeed said.
The political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy, and electricity storage technologies has improved dramatically over the past few years, with costs dropping rapidly over the last few decades, and with corresponding growth trajectories much faster than expected by the energy community, according to the report.
The report highlights that the use of unabated coal must be reduced dramatically by 2030 and essentially phased out by 2040.
Asian Development Bank President Takehiko Nakao told the participants of the Asia Clean Energy Forum (ACEF) on June 18 that the bank is undergoing a thorough review of its energy policy and to soon stop funding coal projects in Asia.
“ We are now reviewing our energy policy. There are many changes so we should adjust our policies to address new reality. Lending to coal projects will be one of the very important issues. I don’t know whether we will totally dismiss the possibility of coal projects because in some countries, there’s no access to other options,” Nakao explained, adding that the last coal project supported by ADB was in 2013.
Nakao said ADB had started investing in clean renewable energy as part of its strategy 2030, which outlines the bank’s programs in the coming years.
“ We don’t support coal anymore. We are now moving toward renewables in Asia. Asian leaders are paying attention to growth, development and climate change. We need to integrate more advance technology and better governance,” Nakao said.
Several South and South East Asian economies are planning to expand their coal plant capacity rapidly, despite the need to phase out coal-fired power by 2050 globally. Together, countries in these regions account for half of the world’s planned coal power expansion.
India, Vietnam, and Indonesia alone account for over 30% of this planned expansion. An important share of these plans comes from emerging economies whose energy systems have not heavily depended on coal in the past. These include Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, which together account for over 13% of the planned expansion of the global fleet. Relative to the current fleet size, Bangladesh plans to increase its coal-based capacity threefold and Philippines aims to nearly double the size of its coal-based capacity. The present plans for major new coal deployment in the region would endanger the achievement of the Paris Agreement as well as many SDGs in this region, undermining sustainable development objectives across the region.
No to coal expansion in the Philippines
Lack of access to modern energy remains a problem in the Philippines. Overall, 91% of the population had access to electricity in 2016, with about 97% in urban areas compared to only 86% in rural areas, leaving about 9 million people without access.
While energy independence has been identified as a priority for the country, most of the planned coal fleet expansion will consist of plant fueled by imported coal.
“ The Philippines is planning to build new coal power plants. This is worrying as it would lock it into a carbon-intensive pathway for decades, and would be a huge missed opportunity to build a carbon-free, climate-resilient energy system,” Parra explained.
The report cited that in the Philippines, what is especially worrying is the increase of coal in the supply of electricity: from 37% in 2000 to 48% in 2016. At the same time, the share of renewables decreased from 26% in 2000 to 15% in 2015, despite recent large capacity additions, in particular wind and solar as well as solid biomass.
She said that national energy planning should factor-in other national priorities, such as energy independence, reliability and affordability of power supply, and sustainable development goals. “The current expansion of coal is at odds with these priorities but scaling up its renewable energy targets would go a long way to address this,” Parra said.
“ The Philippines has a huge potential for developing renewable energy sources. Their low, and ever decreasing, costs and distributed character is the best way to provide electricity even to the most remote islands. If the coal expansion plans go ahead, the Philippines government would need to consider the cost of reducing emissions in other sectors to compensate for the new coal emissions, to meet its national climate pledge under the Paris climate agreement,” Parra explained.
On the other hand, Climate Change Commission Secretary Emmanuel De Guzman said the government has been vigorously pursuing programs than could make our energy system more efficient and equitable, more secure and sustainable, adding that the comprehensive review of our energy policy is underway to inform policy reform and a just transition to a green energy sector.
“ Apart from adaptation measures, scaling up renewable energy technology is the best alternative for the country to ensure that we meet our commitments in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. We are updating our National Climate Action Plan and the Nationally Determined Contributions to align to the 1.5 climate goal,” Secretary De Guzman told Philippine Environews.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2025 the Philippines could reduce energy system costs by around 0.5 billion USD per year, which would create local job opportunities in the renewables sector.
“ Indeed, our NDC is all about adaptation, decarbonization, emission avoidance and energy efficiency to reduce coal power generation. Let renewable energy grow exponentially,” De Guzman stressed.
A transition to renewable energy, according to the report, could contribute to reducing energy security concerns and public expenditures on fossil fuel imports, freeing resources for other investments. The increasing reliance on fossil fuel imports comes at a significant cost – 3.5% of the country’s GDP or 11 billion USD in 2017 were spent on fuel imports.
The report stated that the Philippines can benefit substantially from a rollout of renewable energy also in terms of reducing air pollution and related health impacts. The Philippines could benefit from reducing external costs from air pollution with annual average air pollution cost savings in 2025 amounting to about 1.1 billion USD with regard to reduced outdoor air pollution.
The Climate Analytics report has been prepared under the project “Pilot Asia-Pacific Climate Technology Network and Finance Centre”, an initiative of the United Nations Environment and the Asian Development Bank, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).