To the victor belong the spoils: The future of green energy

To the victor belong the spoils: The future of green energy

In recent years, China has pushed for the rapid development of renewable energy infrastructure, touting itself as the leader of innovative green energy production worldwide.

Though Trump’s exit from the Paris accord is now widely commented on, what has gone relatively unnoticed are the shared areas of energy development between the US, China and India, namely carbon capture technology. With a combined push for technological development from Asia and the US for coal projects, international policy organizations may be forced to change their tune and accept that coal still has a place in a green energy future.

Trump set tongues wagging in June when he announced that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a global agreement to boost anti-climate change and mitigation policies through nationally determined contributions. The most controversial leader the free world has ever seen, Trump has commandeered global discourse on energy production and brought the concept of clean coal to the fore, much to the chagrin of world leaders, scientists and climate activists the world over.

Despite the Paris agreement withdrawal, the US remains a member of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, no doubt with a view to influence global bodies to accept carbon capture technologies as a pillar of global energy production — and it might just work.

Led by China and India, rapidly industrializing countries have long recognized their continued need for fossil fuels, with clean coal sitting at the nexus point of tensions between power generation, economic development, and increasing demand for environmental sustainability. In Southeast Asia, energy demand has long outpaced growth in sustainable energy, with poor regional coordination exacerbated by skyrocketing economic growth. Coal, an abundant and relatively affordable energy source, has been critical in providing energy to 120 million people who live without electricity in the region. Even so, the push for the expansion of renewable energy sources continues, with Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand setting ambitious targets amid global pressure to crack down on carbon emissions.

The ramifications have been severe. Thailand saw its energy production decrease in 2015, forcing the Kingdom to increase energy imports to match domestic demand. In Cambodia, reliance on imported fuel means electricity prices are some of the highest in the region. Indonesia, the largest Asian energy consumer, is projected to face an energy crisis by 2020 as a result of its inability to generate enough clean energy in the face of a growing urban population and expanding industries.

With regional energy demand projected to increase by more than 80 per cent from 2015 to 2040, the price of global pressure to curb emissions is far higher in Southeast Asia that in countries that have already reaped the benefits of their respective industrial revolutions.

The US Department of Energy signed an agreement with China’s National Energy Administration to boost cooperation in developing clean coal technologies, and India continues to push for ultra-supercritical technologies in cleaner coal utilisation. It is in this context that the World Coal Association is pushing for intergovernmental investment into ultra-high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal in a model similar to that formed by the Paris agreement, supported by International Energy Agency predictions that coal will still have a 30% share of global energy consumption in 2040 regardless of efforts to curb its consumption.

The pro-renewable energy stances of institutions such as the World Bank and other international finance bodies may ultimately be forced to bow to this pressure. Despite the World Bank limiting the financing of coal-fired power plant projects, Trump is fighting hard to have these restrictions lifted and boost the development of new coal plants abroad as part of his mission to boost the long-flagging American coal industry under the banner of “energy dominance”.

Trump’s bid for legitimacy is matched by the Chinese Communist Party, which is seeking to slash carbon emissions through cutting-edge technologies as a means of meeting the twin principles of economic performance and social harmony. The world’s third-largest coal producer, Australia, is looking to meet its Paris climate goals by replacing existing coal power stations with ultra-supercritical ones; Japan, the fourth-largest coal consumer, has installed two HELE coal units to compensate for the loss of nuclear power capacity after the 2011 earthquake.

The World Bank may find itself alone on the bench if it continues to insist on a renewable energy-only approach to addressing energy poverty, and will risk redundancy as the region pursues a more pragmatic path. Coal’s current downturn may only be cyclical on account of slumped prices in the commodity sector, and the sector can expect to continue to play a critical role in decades to come.

About Author

Joanna Eva

Joanna Eva is a London-based analyst and contributor with a range of clients in the risk consulting industry. She specializes in Asian political and economic analysis, having lived and travelled extensively in the region for close to a decade. She holds a Master of Law from the University of New South Wales and received her Bachelor of International Studies from the University of Sydney. She is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese.