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Survey: Less coal, more solar, say citizens of Belt & Road countries

A worker walking by rows of solar panels at the Kayubihi Power Plant in Bangli, Bali. The Kayubihi Power Plant is the only solar-powered plant operating in Bali out of a total of three plants. Image by Anton Muhajir/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Residents in countries where China has invested in infrastructure building under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would much rather prefer investments in renewable power projects than coal, a survey has found.
  • Coal projects accounted for up to 42 percent of China’s overseas investment in 2018, making the country the world’s biggest funder of coal power development overseas, which threatens to scupper international climate goals.
  • A draft communiqué of a BRI forum taking place this week in Beijing shows an increased focus on ensuring “green” development, although activists say this may just be lip service.
  • The Indonesian delegation to the BRI forum plans to pitch for investments in a slate of projects, including four coal plants, despite being one of the countries where foreign investment in coal is viewed unfavorably.

JAKARTA — Citizens of countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, strongly prefer clean energy over the coal projects that have become Beijing’s calling card, a new survey shows.

The findings, from a multi-country survey, commissioned by environmental group E3G, were published ahead of an international forum hosted in Beijing for leaders of BRI countries. The survey is the first of its kind to gauge public opinion of foreign investment in energy in these countries.

It found that in six of them — Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam — there was little public support for coal projects. These same countries are among the top 10 for the construction of new coal-fired power plants, many backed by Chinese developers under the BRI.

“This polling provides clear evidence that the citizens of the BRI countries prefer clean energy investment over coal,” said Nick Mabey, chief executive of E3G. “China should now work with governments, business and investors at the upcoming Belt and Road Forum to make sure these demands are met.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative showing China in Red, the members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange, and the 6 proposed corridors of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land transportation route running from China to Southern Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route connecting the port of Shanghai to Venice, Italy, via India and Africa. Image by Lommes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Solar over coal

Coal projects accounted for up to 42 percent of China’s overseas investment in 2018, according to the China Global Energy Finance database. This makes China the world’s biggest investor in coal power development overseas, which threatens to scupper international climate goals.

According to the survey, the majority of respondents selected renewable energy sources when asked which type of energy they felt their country should invest in to best support its long-term development, ranging from 61 percent in Pakistan to 89 percent in Vietnam.

Solar power was the most favored by the respondents, receiving the highest share of positive responses of all energy options in the six countries. At the other end of the spectrum, coal was the least favored, with the majority of respondents feeling it should be the lowest priority, ranked even lower than nuclear in four of the six countries.

The respondents tended to associate foreign investment in coal projects with increased pollution and climate change. Some respondents also associated coal with corruption.

Conversely, they mostly linked foreign investment in wind and solar power with long-term economic development and job creation, on top of climate change mitigation and decreased air and water pollution.

Asked about their general feelings toward foreign investments in energy, more than 85 percent of those surveyed said they favored investments in renewable projects, while less than a third said they favored putting that money into coal.

Right to left, President of China Xi Jinping, President of Russia Vladimir Putin, and President of Indonesia Joko Widodo at the May 2017 Belt and Road International Forum. Image courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office CC 4.0 license.

Emphasis on ‘green’

Those findings should serve as a wake-up call for the Chinese government, said Adhityani Putri, director of the Jakarta-based Center for Energy Research Asia (CERA).

“There’s a much more positive perception given to foreign entities if they invest in renewable projects,” she told reporters in Jakarta. “We’re hoping that’s what China is striving for as well because its government has stated they wanted to build a more positive and green reputation. They said they wanted to make the BRI greener.”

The various projects under the BRI — through which China is investing in infrastructure spanning the breadth of Asia, through Africa and up to Europe — have frequently been criticized for their environmental impact.

In Indonesia, this includes a high-speed rail line that the government in Jakarta has now shelved due to a lack of proper environmental impact studies and conflicts with local zoning plans. State-owned Bank of China and Sinohydro have also been roundly criticized for a massive hydropower dam project in Sumatra that threatens the only known habitat of the world’s rarest great ape, the Tapanuli orangutan.

Amid these and other concerns, China has promised greener and more sustainable projects. During the first Belt and Road summit, in 2017, President Xi Jinping proposed establishing “an international coalition for green development,” supporting initiatives to help countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, and boosting science cooperation.

A draft communiqué of the second Belt and Road Summit, running from April 25 to 27, states that the 37 world leaders expected to attend will agree to project financing that respects global debt goals and promotes green growth. The word “green” appears in the draft seven times; it wasn’t mentioned at all in the official communiqué from two years ago.

“We underline the importance of promoting green development,” the draft reads. “We encourage the development of green finance including the issuance of green bonds as well as development of green technology.”

But activists say they’re concerned that the use of the word amounts to nothing more than lip service, and that China will continue investing heavily in coal and other projects that don’t merit a “green” label.

Participants at the Belt and Road International Forum in May, 2017 posing in Beijing, China. The BRI has the backing of dozens of nations that encompass billions of people. Image courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office CC 4.0 license.

Indonesia still pitching for coal investment

China’s green pledge looks to be put to the test during the summit, where the Indonesian delegation plans to present to investors a list of 28 projects, worth a combined $91.1 billion. They include four coal-fired power plant projects, with total generating capacity of 2,100 megawatts. Also on the list are seaports, industrial estates, smelters and tourism zones.

The Indonesian government says it expects to clinch deals for at least three of the projects. It has also drawn up criteria that it expects any Chinese investors to comply with, including the use of environmentally friendly technologies.

“We will not accept any second-class technology that will have a negative impact on the environment,” said Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, who also oversees the coal and energy sectors in Indonesia.

Despite this measure, activists have called on the Indonesian government to scrub the coal projects from the list, citing grave environmental concerns.

Mardan Pius Ginting, coordinator of the NGO Action for Ecology and Emancipation of the People (AEER), said building more coal-fired power plants would make it extremely difficult for Indonesia to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet its target of reducing 29 percent of its emissions by 2030 compared to business-as-usual levels.

He added the four proposed coal projects were problematic in other ways. One of them, the 700-megawatt expansion of an existing plant in Bali, has faced fierce opposition from local fishing communities. The current plant was financed with $700 million in loans from state-owned China Development Bank, and has been accused of wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem since it began operating in 2015. Locals have complained of coal waste residue being dumped on both the land and in the sea, and say the dust and fumes from the plant have triggered a spate of health problems.

The government’s search for investors to expand the plant, say activists, will result in increased pollution; the pumping of hot water into the sea, where it damages the delicate marine ecosystem; and a rise in coal-barge traffic, threatening the area’s reefs.

Pius said the three other proposed coal projects, all in Indonesian Borneo, were also of concern because they were mine-mouth plants, which meant that large swaths of forest would have to be cleared to accommodate them near existing coal mines.

Pius said projects with such big environmental concerns had no place on Indonesia’s investor pitch list, especially given that China itself was shutting down its coal plants and mines amid mounting concerns over air, water and soil pollution, and shifting to renewables. China currently leads the world in mass production of solar panels and other clean energy technologies.

“At a time when coal is no longer competitive in China, Indonesia shouldn’t offer up investments for coal plants that have been abandoned by China itself,” Pius said. “The key is for the Indonesian government to not propose [coal projects]. If there’s no pitch, then China won’t invest in them.”

Conversely, he said, “When there’s an offer, of course China will take it.”

“With China’s economy slowing down, of course they’re going to find ways to boost their economy and absorb their labors,” he added.

CERA’s Adhityani said China should use its leadership in clean energy to invest in renewable power projects in Indonesia.

“Why are there no big-scale solar projects, or more daring renewable projects in strategic locations?” she said. “This is important because China’s investments can trigger change and grow our renewable industry.”


Banner image: A worker walking by rows of solar panels at the Kayubihi Power Plant in Bangli, Bali. The Kayubihi Power Plant is the only solar-powered plant operating in Bali out of a total of three plants. Image by Anton Muhajir/Mongabay Indonesia.

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