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Battle for Hydro in the War against Climate Change

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Propelled by the 2016 Paris Agreement there is global impetus towards clean renewable energy. The need now is to invest in ‘paradigm shifting technology’ to fuel clean development,and with the help of think tank reports and energy expert analysis we have clearer understanding of what the harbingers of this endeavour are: biomass, geothermal, wind power, solar, ocean energy, biofuel, and hydro*. 

An asterisk (or parentheses) after hydropower alerts one about the numerous caveats surrounding this technology. Hydropower (other than small hydro) is not considered new or paradigm shifting. Indeed, the parentheses for small hydro being the lack of consensus of what it means; reports define it to be anywhere from  <10 to <50 MW. Yet, it is this caveat that determines the future of investments into hydropower — and the future of the countries who rely on them–in our climate conscious world.

The investments into hydropower, especially in climate vulnerable developing countries, are complicated because they interlace with the Right to Development and the principle of climate justice. Radical arguments for starving investments from hydropower without consideration of historical and political complexity is a disservice against the fight to eradicate poverty and manage climate change.

Global Investments

In early April, a letter, addressed to the Board of Directors of the Global Climate Fund, and signed by 272 environmental organisations asked that no investments to be made on “large” hydropower. The letter highlighted three projects that were at in the GCF pipelines: Qairokkum Hydropower Rehabilitation (126 MW), Tajikistan; Tina River Hydro Project (20 MW), Solomon Islands; and Upper Trishuli-1 (216 MW), Nepal. The last of which was not up for the April review.

They argued that technology used in large hydros – regardless of whether its reservoir or run-off-the-river, as in the case of Upper Trishuli 1 – was not paradigm-shifting and its climate resilient reputation was doubtful.

GCF is the financial mechanism under the UNFCCC, which helps finance investment in climate-resilient development. The fund “helps developing countries limit or reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adapt to climate change. It seeks to promote a paradigm shift to low-emission…taking into account the needs of nations that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.”

The question of whether hydro ought to be considered clean or not – or will continue to be considered clean – is an important one for investment starved countries like Nepal, Tajiskistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Solomon Islands (all countries either low or medium in human development). In countries with immense hydro potential, it is this sector that continues to be the most attractive for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The competition for access to infrastructure investment is already high. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asia needs to invest USD 26 trillion by 2030 to resolve a serious infrastructure shortage, to maintain growth and address climate change, i.e. an estimated demand of USD 1.7 trillion per year to meet its infrastructure gap. The gap is particularly wide in the power sector. Only a fraction of which is currently met, whether through international financial mechanism, through public-private investments or institutional investors. As demand for clean infrastructure increases and the supply of capital remains limited, the priority given to infrastructure investments – especially by international financial institutions — will change.

Hydropower plants, with huge political and environmental risks will be a financially treacherous.

The GCF board has given the go-ahead to Qairokkum Hydropower Rehabilitation, and Tina River Hydro Project. But the concerns about hydro are unlikely to die down. Protest against hydropower rage from Brazil to Kenya. Increasingly Green Chip investors in the developed markets are weary about the future of hydro. The climate and political risk continue to put them off as they find new and less capital intensive renewables in which to to invest. For instance, while investments in wind and solar have been rising, investments in small hydro –defined as <50 MW — has continued to decline since the 2010. It stands at USD 3.5 billion compared to USD 113.7 billion for solar and USD 112.5 billion for wind. The 48 percent decline in hydropower investment between 2015 and 2016 reflect the trend of shrinking interest. 

Development Banks, a major backer of hydro, are cautious of adding large hydro to their portfolio. Compelling projects and governments to be more creative with capital generation in order to stay attractive to new classes to investors. Improved investments require a stable and conducive policy and an environment which ensures payment security. None of which is facilitated by environmental fear mongering over hydropower, making the task of these countries more difficult.

Case against hydro

To be certain, the case against certain hydropower projects, especially the reservoir type, is unflattering. Studies show that reservoirs emit methane, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) estimates has a  Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 34 – it has 34 times the impact of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere over a 100-year period. The GWP for a 20 year period is estimated to be more devastating at 84, before it decays into CO2. Further, hydro projects endanger fish from migrating, alter ecosystems, and destroy carbon sinks. Additionally, there is the problem that climate change itself is altering river flows and making it harder to sustain hydro projects. A 2012 study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, concluded that emissions from hydropower, especially in tropical regions, were often underestimated and could exceed those of fossil fuel for decades. The study also makes the case that Clean Development Mechanism should stop helping fund large dams without considering their carbon footprints.

Even notwithstanding the debate about the exactitude of climate changes impact on hydropower generation (or hydropower generation’s impact on climate change)  consider a list of other climate findings: Nepal’s contribution, for instance, to global climate change is negligible, its CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) are at mere 0.2 versus 11.7 of Norway, 37.8 for Qatar, and 16.4 for the USA. IEA reports suggest Nepal’s per capita electricity consumption is at 128 kwh/capita versus the Asian average of 918. Yet it suffers tremendously from climate change – a problem for which it has no historic blame. The stats are similar for countries like Tajikistan with a CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) 0.44,  and Kyrgyzstan is at 1.72 metric tons.

 Methane as reported in CO2 equivalent over 100 years conversion period is at 5,408 for Tajikistan, and 1,449 for Solomon Island  versus 499,809 for the US, and 106,847 for Canada. Then there is a question of atmospheric trade offs. Studies of life cycle assessments show that majority of life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission estimates for hydropower – run off the river- cluster between about 4 and 14 g CO2eq/kWh, whereas the figures for coal, across all technologies, was at 979 g CO2e/kWh. Natural gas weighed in at  450g CO2e/kWh. The figures of coal and natural gas are important. In the lack of stable renewable sources much electricity being produced or imported into these growing economies comes from these energy sources.

For instance,  Nepal is economically burdened by the import of petroleum and LPG, choked by the haze of black carbon, and reduced to buying coal-fuelled electricity from India. This despite having the potential to produce and export enough hydroelectricity for its own needs and then some for a growing economy like India. Lack of institutional investments and continued obstructionism intensely harms economic and environmental health of this climate vulnerable country. How environmentalists can recommend obstructing international investments to develop hydropower in Nepal seems incomprehensible. As historian and environmentalist Martin W Lewis writes, “Environmental opposition to such plans and projects is understandable, as they all come at a big cost to nature. But the huge atmospheric trade offs must also be acknowledged.” 

If the argument of right to develop, climate justice and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility are to have any validity then rants against investing in  countries in need of capital must stop. This is not to argue that countries that have been historic non-polluters should have a pass to develop irresponsibly. Reform in the hydropower sector, and investing criterion calls for intense environmental and social impact assessments into project feasibility. And governments and international institution that stand as guarantees are increasingly responsive and open to such consideration. Risk screening for project financing include an increased emphasis on climate change impacts and natural disaster risk, with both the World bank and IFC working to make projects climate smart and resilient. 

Then there is the issues of human rights. Land, often belonging to indigenous people is allocated and flooded with little consultation or just compensation. And even when there is stakeholder engagement it is often limited, not particularly inclusive and alienating. The issue of resettlement is an important one, and is of intense consideration during project impact studies. Hydro sector has come a long way to acknowledge and systematically address many complex issues. Stakeholder engagement, consultation, impact assessment and resettlement programs are legally mandatory. Any project that damages human settlement without stakeholder consultation, timely and just compensation or grievance redress mechanisms is a non-starter. Could project developers, funders and governments do more when these protocols are violated? Of course. But to suggest that they haven’t tried or regardless of attempts to move towards implementing ever rigorous standards hydro is inherently as condemnable as fossil fuels is disingenuous.

Any argument that seeks to limit access to finance for hydro in countries with untapped potential must be accompanied by an argument for transfer of technology, increased finance for improved grid connectivity, and other renewables. For now other forms of renewables cannot meet the growing demand — regardless of how carefully the demand side is managed. Without any acknowledgment of trade-offs or the potential of these investments to lift millions out of poverty, limiting access to finance in hydropower rich but energy poor countries is fighting the wrong fight.

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Energy transition is a global challenge that needs an urgent global response

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COP26 showed that green energy is not yet appealing enough for the world to reach a consensus on coal phase-out. The priority now should be creating affordable and viable alternatives 

Many were hoping that COP26 would be the moment the world agreed to phase out coal. Instead, we received a much-needed reality check when the pledge to “phase out” coal was weakened to “phase down”. 

 This change was reportedly pushed by India and China whose economies are still largely reliant on coal. The decision proved that the world is not yet ready to live without the most polluting fossil fuels. 

 This is an enormous problem. Coal is the planet’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, but also a major source of energy, producing over one-third of global electricity generation. Furthermore, global coal-fired electricity generation could reach an all-time high in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 Given the continued demand for coal, especially in the emerging markets, we need to accelerate the use of alternative energy sources, but also ensure their equal distribution around the world.

 There are a number of steps policymakers and business leaders are taking to tackle this challenge, but all of them need to be accelerated if we are to incentivise as rapid shift away from coal as the world needs. 

 The first action to be stepped up is public and private investment in renewable energy. This investment can help on three fronts: improve efficiency and increase output of existing technologies, and help develop new technologies. For green alternatives to coal to become more economically viable, especially, for poorer countries, we need more supply and lower costs.

 There are some reasons to be hopeful. During COP26 more than 450 firms representing a ground-breaking $130 trillion of assets pledged investment to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement. 

 The benefits of existing investment are also becoming clearer. Global hydrogen initiatives, for example, are accelerating rapidly, and if investment is kept up, the Hydrogen Council expects it to become a competitive low-carbon solution in long haul trucking, shipping, and steel production.

 However, the challenge remains enormous. The IEA warned in October 2021 that investment in renewable energy needs to triple by the end of this decade to effectively combat climate change. Momentum must be kept up.

 This is especially important for countries like India where coal is arguably the main driver for the country’s economic growth and supports “as many as 10-15 million people … through ancillary employment and social programs near the mines”, according to Brookings Institute.  

This leads us to the second step which must be accelerated: support for developing countries to incentivise energy transition in a way which does not compromise their growth. 

Again, there is activity on this front, but it is insufficient. Twelve years ago, richer countries pledged to channel US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the financial assistance failed to reach $80 billion in 2019, and likely fell substantially short in 2020. Governments say they will reach the promised amount by 2023. If anything, they should aim to reach it sooner.

There are huge structural costs in adapting electricity grids to be powered at a large scale by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Businesses will also need to adapt and millions of employees across the world will need to be re-skilled. To incentivise making these difficult but necessary changes, developing countries should be provided with the financial support promised them over a decade ago.

The third step to be developed further is regulation. Only governments are in a position to pass legislation which encourages a faster energy transition. To take just one example, the European Commission’s Green Deal, proposes introduction of new CO2 emission performance standards for cars and vans, incentivising the electrification of vehicles. 

This kind of simple, direct legislation can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and encourage industry to tackle climate change.

Widespread legislative change won’t be straightforward. Governments should closely involve industry in the consultative process to ensure changes drive innovation rather than add unnecessary bureaucracy, which has already delayed development of renewable assets in countries including Germany and Italy. Still, regardless of the challenges, stronger regulation will be key to turning corporate and sovereign pledges into concrete achievements. 

COP26 showed that we are not ready as a globe to phase out coal. The priority for the global leaders must now be to do everything they can to drive the shift towards green energy and reach the global consensus needed to save our planet.

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Pakistan–Russia Gas Stream: Opportunities and Risks of New Flagship Energy Project

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source: twitter

Russia’s Yekaterinburg hosted the 7th meeting of the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation on November 24–26, 2021. Chaired by Omar Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Economic Affairs, and Nikolai Shulginov, Russia’s Minister of Energy, the meeting was attended by around 70 policy makers, heads of key industrial companies and businessmen from both sides, marking a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad.

Three pillars of bilateral relations

Among the most important questions raised by the Commission were collaboration in trade, investment and the energy sector.

According to the Russian Federal Customs Service, the Russian-Pakistani trade turnover increased in 2020 by 45.8% compared to 2019, totaling 789.8 million U.S. dollars. Yet, there is still huge potential for increasing the trade volume for the two countries, including textiles and agricultural products of Pakistan and Russian products of machinery, technical expertise as well as transfer of knowledge and R&D.

Another prospective project discussed at the intergovernmental level is initiating a common trade corridor between Russia, the Central Asia and Pakistan. Based on the One-Belt-One-Road concept, launched by China, the Pakistan Road project is supposed to create a free flow of goods between Russia and Pakistan through building necessary economic and transport infrastructure, including railway construction and special customs conditions. During the Commission meeting, both countries expressed their intention to collaborate on renewal of the railway machines fleet and facilities in Pakistan, including supplies of mechanized track maintenance and renewal machines; supplies of 50 shunting (2400HP or less) and 100 mainline (over 3000HP) diesel locomotives; joint R&D of the technical and economic feasibility of locomotives production based in the Locomotive Factory Risalpur and other. The proposed contractors of the project might be the Russian Sinara Transport Machines, Uralvagonzavod JSC that stand ready to supply Pakistan Railway with freight wagons, locomotives and passenger coaches. In order to engage import and export activities between Russian and Pakistani businessmen, the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum with Ural Chamber of Commerce and Industry, marking a new step in bilateral relations. Similar memorandums have already been signed with other Chambers of Commerce in Russian regions.

— Today, the ties between Russia and Pakistan are objectively strengthening in all areas including economic, political and military collaboration. But we, as businessmen, are primarily interested in the development of trade relations and new transit corridors for export-import activities. For example, the prospective pathways of the Pakistan-Central Asia-Russia trade and economic corridor project are now being actively discussed at the intergovernmental level, — said Mohsin Sheikh, Director of the Pakistan Russia Business Council of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. — For Islamabad, this issue is one of the most important. Based on a similar experience of trade with China, we see great prospects for this direction. That is why representatives of Pakistan’s government, customs officers, diplomats and businessmen gathered in Yekaterinburg today.

However, the flagship project of the new era of the Pakistan-Russia relations is likely to be the Pakistan Gas Stream. Previously known as the North-South Gas Pipeline, this mega-project (1,100 kilometers in length) is expected to cost up to USD 2,5 billion and is claimed to be highly beneficial for Pakistan. Being a net importer of energy, Pakistan will be able to develop and integrate new sources of natural gas and transport it to the densely populated industrialized north. At the same time, the project will enable Pakistan—whose main industries are still dependent on the coal consumption—to take a major step forward gradually replacing coal with relatively more ecologically sustainable natural gas. To enable this significant development in the Pakistan’s energy sector, Moscow and Islamabad have made preliminary agreements to carry on the research of Pakistan’s mineral resource sector including copper, gold, iron, lead and zinc ores of Baluchistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces.

A lot opportunities but a lot more risks?

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipe Project undoubtedly opens major investment opportunities for Pakistan. Among them are establishment of new refineries; the launch of virtual LNG pipelines; building of LNG onshore storages of LNG; investing in strategic oil and gas storages. Yet, it seems that Pakistan is likely to win more from the Project than Russia. And here’s why. The current version of the agreement signed by Moscow and Islamabad has been essentially reworked. According to it, Russia will likely to receive only 26 percent in the project stake instead of 85 percent as it was previously planned, while the Pakistani side will retain a controlling stake (74 percent) in the project.

Another stranding factor for Russia is although Moscow will be entitled to provide all the necessary facilities and equipment for the building of the pipeline, the entire construction process will be supervised by an independent Pakistani-based company, which will substantially boost Pakistan’s influence at each development. Finally, the vast bulk of the gas transported via the pipeline will likely come from Qatar, which will further strengthen Qatar’s role in the Pakistani energy sector.

Big strategy but safety first

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline will surely become an important strategic tool for Russia to reactivate the South Asian vector of its foreign policy. Even though the project’s aim is not to gain a fast investment return and economic benefits, it follows significant strategic goals for both countries. As Russia-India political and economic relations are cooling down, Moscow is likely to boost ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in economy, military, safety and potentially nuclear energy, that was highlighted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during visit to Islamabad earlier this year. Such an expansion of relations with Pakistan will allow Russia to gain a more solid foothold in the South Asian part of China’s BRI, thus opening up a range of new lucrative opportunities for Moscow.

Apart from its economic and political aspects, the Pakistan Stream Project also has clear geopolitical implications. It marks Russia’s growing influence in South Asia and points to some remarkable transformations that are currently taking place in this region. The ongoing geopolitical game within the India-Russia-Pakistan triangle is yet less favorable for New Delhi much because of the Pakistan Stream Project. Even though the project is not directly aimed to jeopardize the India’s role in the region, it is considered the first dangerous signal for New Delhi. For instance, the International “Extended troika” Conference on Afghanistan, which was held in Moscow last spring united representatives from the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan but left India aside (even though the latter has important strategic interests in Afghanistan).

With the recent withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, Moscow has become literally the only warden of Central Asia’s security. As Russia is worried about the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating the Central Asia, the main defensive buffer in the South for Moscow, the recent decision of Vladimir Putin to equip its military base in Tajikistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, seems to be just on time. Obviously, Islamabad that faces major risks amidst the Afghanistan crisis sees Moscow as a prospective strategic partner who will help Imran Khan strengthen the Pakistani efforts in fighting the terrorism threat.

From our partner RIAC

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How wind power is transforming communities in Viet Nam

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In two provinces of Viet Nam, a quiet transformation is taking place, driven by the power of renewable energy.

Thien Nghiep Commune, a few hundred kilometres from Ho Chi Min City, is a community of just over 6,000 people – where for years, people relied largely on farming, fishing and seasonal labour to make ends meet.

Now, thanks to a wind farm backed by the Seed Capital Assistance Facility (SCAF) – a multi-donor trust fund, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – people in the Thien Nghiep Commune are accessing new jobs, infrastructure and – soon – cheap, clean energy. The 40MW Dai Phong project, one of two wind farms run by SCAF partner company the Blue Circle, has brought new hope to the community.

For the 759 million people in the world who lack access to electricity, the introduction of clean energy solutions can bring improved healthcare, better education and affordable broadband, creating new jobs, livelihoods and sustainable economic value to reduce poverty.

“It’s not only about the technology and the big spinning wheel for me. It’s more about making investment decisions for the planet and at the same time not compromising on the necessity that we call electricity,” said Nguyen Thi Hoai Thuong, who works as a community liaison. “The interesting part is I work for the project, but I actually work for the community and with the community.”

While the wind farm is not yet online, a focus on local hiring and paying fair prices for land has already made a big difference to the community.

“I used the money from the land sale to the Dai Phong project to repair my house and invest in my cattle. Currently, my life is stable and I have not encountered any difficulties since selling the land,” said Ms. Le Thi Doan.

Powering change

The energy sector accounts for approximately 75 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). UNEP research shows that these need to be reduced dramatically and eventually eliminated to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Renewable energy, in all its forms, is one of humanity’s greatest assets in the fight to limit climate change. Capacity across the globe continues to grow every year, lowering both GHGs and air pollution, but the pace of action must accelerate to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 °C this century.

“To boost growth in renewables, however, companies need to access finance,” said Rakesh  Shejwal, a Programme Management Officer at SCAF. “This is where SCAF comes in. SCAF works through private equity funds and development companies to mobilize early-stage investment low-carbon projects in developing countries.”

The 176 projects it seed financed have mobilized US $3.47 billion to build over one gigawatt of generation capacity, avoiding emissions of 4.68 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent each year.

But SCAF’s work isn’t just about cutting emissions. It is bringing huge benefits across the sustainable development agenda: increasing access to clean and reliable electricity and boosting communities across Asia and Africa. SCAF will be potentially creating 17,000 jobs.

This is evident in Ninh Thuan province, where the Blue Circle created both the first commercial wind power project and the first to be commissioned by a foreign private investor in Viet Nam.

Here, the Dam Nai wind farm has delivered fifteen 2.625 MW turbines, the largest in the country at the time. These will generate approximately 100 GWh per year. They will avoid over 68,000 tCO2e annually and create more than an estimated 302 temporary construction and 13 permanent operation and maintenance jobs for the local community.

Students from the local high school in Ninh Thuan Province were also given the opportunity to meet with engineers and technicians on the project, increasing their knowledge about how renewable energy works and opening up new career paths.

SCAF, through its partners, is supporting clean energy project development in the Southeast Asian region and African region. SCAF has more than a decade of experience in decarbonization and is currently poised to run till 2026.

UNEP

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