For the Sake of Cambodia’s Future—Quit Coal

FILE: Smoke billows from a chimney of the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant in Shanghai on March 22, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Cambodia’s future invariably hinges on those in charge abandoning the myopic policies of short-term energy fixes and embracing the longevity of renewable energy, but will they make that choice?

PHNOM PENH--In February 2020, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers greenlighted two coal-fired power plants to be constructed in Kong Kong and Odor Meanchey provinces which have been commissioned for operation by the end of 2021 and early 2022, respectively.



With a $1.6 billion capital investment both plants could generate up to 1,000 megawatts collectively. Han Seng Coal Mines will develop one power station in Odor Meanchey Province, while Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group will build the other in Koh Kong Province. Meng was, in August 2020, granted 168.8 hectares of Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong Province for his power plant.



Another power station construction project, which includes two 350-megawatt coal-fired power plants, officially broke ground at Sihanoukville Port on Aug. 18, 2020. Approved last year as a flagship project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it is funded by Cambodia International Investment and Development Group (CIIDG) in partnership with China Huadian Hong Kong (CHDHK). 



On top of coal, Cambodia is among the few nations bringing back heavy fuel oil (HFO) power plants, have been widely condemned for the astronomical levels of pollution they generate. By the end of this year, a new 400-megawatt HFO plant will be finished in Kandal Province, despite the warnings of experts that pollution will reach Phnom Penh.



Evidently, the country’s leadership is unwilling to stop burning fossil fuels, particularly coal—in spite of the environmental and public health implications that will arise from the pollution. As countries around the world attempt to phase out coal, Cambodia is yet to fully embrace the transition towards clean energy, leaving the impacts of climate change and pollution relatively unchecked.



Cambodia’s rapid pace of development has led to an overreliance on coal and hydropower in recent years. Demand for electricity continues to surge, with an annual growth of 9 percent projected between now and 2040. Against the backdrop of last year’s blackouts and the public backlash the government faced, the race to harness more energy is apparent.



But the solutions to the impending energy crisis should be paving a way for a permanent shift in power sources. Cambodia’s myopic pursuit of obsolete and destructive sources of energy is not only distressing and disturbing, but contradicts the government’s promises commit to an energy transition plan.



It should be remembered that the Cambodian government last year promised to further increase investments in solar energy by 12 percent by the end of this year and then to 20 percent in the next three years

Cambodia’s current path is diverging from the path of sustainability—this diversion jeopardizes public safety in the long-run. The technology is available and Cambodia has many options in far less damaging sources of energy, yet still refuses to address these concerns seriously.                                       



Putting the Public Health in Peril  



Policymakers should be moving beyond coal, despite the initial low costs of energy production, there will be a steep price to pay in the future. Air pollution—an indiscriminate threat—will corrupt our future if Cambodia chooses to stay the course of coal. We know, through scientific consensus, that coal-fired power is one of the most prominent contributors to the climate crisis we now face.



Burning coal for power generation typically releases “a number of airborne toxins and pollutants including mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals” into the air. These factor into a wide range of health problems from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death.



The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 7 million people die every year due to air pollution, which is mainly caused by “the inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants.”



On the other hand, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, has—as of Aug. 20—claimed more than 780,000 people since its outbreak in January 2020. If we as a global society are this ill-equipped to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, then we have an insight into how severe the climate crisis will be in the coming decades. COVID-19 may yet see a successful vaccine, but no such hope exists for combating air pollution. It is a silent killer that has failed to garner a serious global effort to address it.



Already, in Cambodia, air pollution is emerging as a serious public health issue—although tracking the hazards posed by pollution remains challenging, or at least unconvincing for Cambodian policymakers.



Steps have been taken by some in power to monitor pollution from construction, fuel-combustion engines and the burning of garbage, but these measures fail to tackle fossil fuel dependence—a far greater culprit in the generation of air pollution.



It is undisputable that commissioning more coal-fired-power plants, which have lifespans between 30 and 40 years, will compromise public health by contributing to severe reductions in air quality.



With the world moving towards a better future—one without coal-fired energy—why can’t we follow suit? Why we still pursue such ill-considered projects and policies? It is perhaps a question that is easier to ask than to answer, but it is for those in charge to find an answer.



Climate Crisis: Cambodia is No Longer a “Carbon Sink”



Globally, the emissions from coal-fired power plants account for 38 percent of the 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions released from global electricity generation, which surpasses the amount of greenhouse gas allowed to be emitted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in order to keep the rise in temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. Therefore, the faster we phase out coal, the better we can manage the climate crisis. 



The past two decades have, for Cambodia, not presented much of a challenge for meeting carbon emission targets. The country was regarded as a carbon sink when it comes to greenhouse emission from land uses, meaning it emitted less carbon dioxide than its ability to absorb. This was only possible with the level of forest coverage the country previously enjoyed.



However, various factors have cost Cambodia its carbon sink status, according to the United Nations Development Programme.



Forests that used to capture carbon emissions have been persistently assaulted and impaired by both illegal loggers and development purposes. The most prominent example is Prey Lang, which was found to have lost up to 102,436 hectares of forest over the past two decades, according to a report from Ecology Program of Jesuit Service Cambodia and the Cambodian Youth Network.



Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, just like the other 194 signatories, Cambodia made numerous pledges—one of which is to increase forest cover to 60 percent of national land area by 2030. However, the loss of natural resources due to unsustainable development puts the country’s promises in limbo.



Moreover, Cambodian leadership’s turning of a blind eye to the growing investments in coal-fired power and other environmentally destructive energy sources will only place those emission targets further from reach. Yes, the short-term energy needs are very real, but the government has had time to invest in long-term strategies to meet energy demands without causing environmental chaos.



The future is already bleak, and there’s yet more bad news to come; our people have already felt the impacts of the climate crisis with increased frequencies of extreme climate events such as heatwaves, recurrent and prolonged droughts, flash flooding taking place throughout the country.



One key example is some parts of the country particularly Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces have been ravaged by drought during this year’s rainy season, leaving several thousands of hectares of rice paddy ruined.



Crises such as this will only become more frequent as the effects of climate change set deeper in, which may stand to put the nation’s food security at grave risk. Short on unwavering policy alignment with the Paris Accords, then the worst can only be yet to come and so a recalculation and recalibration of policies is surely necessary for Cambodia now.



That said, while the worst may be yet to come—it is not far away and will affect current generations, not just future ones, if we continue to linger in this state of political apathy. We cannot take the future for granted when it comes to climate change.



For example, in the Cambodian government’s nationally determined contributions (INDC) submitted to the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC) in 2015, the country pointed out that its share of global emissions as a least developed country remains trivial.



It exemplifies the business-as-usual mentality when the government argues that per capita emissions in 2050 will only be 2.59 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which—Cambodia claimed—is “less than half of current world per capita emissions.” We recognize the problem, but remain reluctant to play our part in the grand scheme of things.



Clean Energy is Its Own Reward



Naturally, identifying a problem is the first step towards addressing it, but it is not the last step. While I myself am no expert in energy, I believe in the people who are and the overwhelming majority of them advocate for clean energy such as wind, biomass and solar power for the preservation of our future. Coal and fossil fuels must become part of Cambodia’s past—and quickly—if there is to be a future and so a swift transition of energy sources could see our nation contribute to the global healing of our shared planet.



True, conducting the complete overhaul of our current energy sources and transitioning into a greener future is far more complex than my words have elucidated. It requires a great deal of effort and commitment to make it happen, along with a practical and realistic mechanism to pull it off. This is not the time for shiny promises that are unfulfillable within the context of Cambodia, we need a guarantee of viability.



It is common sense that energy security is a part of the development conundrum, but Cambodia’s energy policymakers must adhere to a principle of responsible public policy and accountable governance and should place people’s concern and safety at the heart of the decision-making process.



Therefore, from now on, policymakers’ attention should be focused on drastic changes that help us reach that goal of a clean energy transition—it is becoming a more critical matter with each passing day. We do not have much time left to experiment. Going green and getting clean is already affordable; Solar energy for example holds so much potential in Cambodia.



Taking into consideration both the economic and public health devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, clean energy will invariably be a part of our green recovery, due to the jobs and economic opportunities it can provide. According to UNDP, clean energy can support the local economy through job creation and offer affordable energy that would significantly benefit small and medium businesses—all being the backbone of the country’s engine for growth. 



I am elated to see that there has been a significant increase in investments in solar energy over the past few years. More solar farm constructions—including a Chinese-funded 60-megawatt solar farm in Battambang Province and 30-megawatt solar power station in Banteay Meanchey Province—coupled with a rare decision by the government to halt dam construction for 10 years, offers hope that renewable energy can and will flourish in Cambodia. 



But much more works needs to be done if we want to revolutionize our energy system—particularly in terms of policy and awareness.



A promotion campaign should be made to increase knowledge on the importance of energy, to inspire and embolden Cambodians to switch to solar or other type of clean energies. Energy experts agree that more capital should also be allocated to research, innovation and capacity building in clean energy. Of course, education remains and will be the long-lasting solution to shaping a perception and the necessary behavioral change that leads to widespread consumption and proliferation of renewable energy.



The government’s biggest challenge is fortifying energy policy, so it should legislate to incentivize renewable energy investments while applying punitive restrictions on those still living in the past. Thailand, by way of example, has done much to incentivize both the private sector and people to take part in the process—results have been positive in many aspects.



If we can learn from other countries’ successes, we might be able to prepare ourselves for a better future once and for all.



It’s not just solar energy that Cambodia stands to gain from. Prominent energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, Han Phoumin, recently told me that the country should look into the possibility utilizing green hydrogen or renewable hydrogen, noting that this has more potential for the energy transition.   



Meanwhile, we also have to ensure that we can exploit advanced technology to the maximum potential if we are to expedite the transition. The technological transfer is essential in assisting Cambodia to build much-needed clean energy infrastructure. This can be accomplished through forging more partnerships with development partners and donor countries for who clean power is standardized and successful.



At the end of the day, none of these ideas can become reality without political commitment. Firm policy is the only real tool that can respond to the urgency that is now upon us and Cambodia’s future hinges in the balance—will it be a pay-off for the nation or a national price to pay? Only those in charge can make that choice.


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