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Giving up on the Earth

Posted on 07/08/2016
By Commonwealth Foundation

coal plant

It almost felt personal. Within a few days of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), the environmental non governmental organization I still lead, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) held a press conference to announce a 1000MW coal-fired plant to be built by a Chinese company, Jiuquan Iron and Steel (JISCO). Minister of Transport and Mining, the Hon. Mike Henry, described a US$2 billion investment in an industrial zone at Nain in water-stressed St. Elizabeth, powered by coal, creating 3,000 jobs and including bauxite mines, an alumina refinery, a local electricity network, rolling wire mills and “other enterprises”. A cement plant was also mentioned.

A massive coal-fired plant. By massive, I mean exceeding Jamaica’s entire current generating capacity of 850MW. Almost doubling our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), from 9.43 million tons per year to just under 16 million tons. It would be hard to imagine a more environmentally harmful project, not just with regard to the local impacts – the mining for bauxite, the degraded air quality, the land use changes not just in Nain but along an as yet undescribed pipeline or conveyor to get the coal from a port, the use of fresh water in water-stressed St. Elizabeth or sea water from the coast, the storage and management of toxic coal ash. The assurances from Minister Henry followed, of course – that JISCO would have to “strictly abide by the relevant laws, regulations, and orders from the Jamaican Government regarding labour, health safety and the environment.” The egregious and manifest weaknesses of environmental monitoring and enforcement in Jamaica were not mentioned. The Paris Agreement on Climate, signed by Jamaica on Earth Day 2016, committing us to reducing our CO2 emissions to 12.4 million tons by 2025 was not mentioned.

The Paris Agreement is due to enter into force in 2020. There has always been a danger that countries or companies will rush to begin new fossil fuel projects before that date. This case is a perfect illustration of those risks. If the 1000MW coal-fired plant goes ahead in Jamaica, Caribbean people will be forced accomplices in the undermining of an agreement that we claimed was in our favour.

A modern coal-fired plant emits 762 kilograms of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, if there is no CO2 capture. This plant alone would emit roughly 6.7 million tons of CO2 per year, just over half of our 2025 target. Meeting our Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement would become highly unlikely.

At the press conference, Energy, Science and Technology Minister, the Hon. Andrew Wheatley gave a guarded assessment of new technology for coal-fired plants as “relatively clean”. He went on to say that the GOJ had not signed off on the use of coal, but if they allowed it, “everything (would be) in place to preserve the environment.”

I first heard of the announcement when a journalist called me. He sent me voice clips from the press conference and asked me to do a later radio interview. I thought the size of the coal plant must have been a mistake. It wasn’t. Within an hour, a private sector leader called, asking me what I was going to do. My timeline started to blow up.

Later that afternoon, on radio with former Jamaica Labour Party energy minister Clive Mullings, I had to endure hearing that the admitted regulatory weaknesses in Jamaica were the fault of civil society, who had not gone to court enough. It was our responsibility, Mr. Mullings said, to “hold the GOJ to account.” How? I yelled. I try not to, but I lost it that afternoon. I knew I’d receive a stream of messages saying I’d been too emotional.

And I knew so well what was to come. Phone entreaties for me to do something, from Jamaicans here and abroad, followed by swift retreats when I said that other voices, many voices, were needed, not just mine. Social media posts asking when the protest was – but as a veteran of environmental protests, perhaps 10 or so during the past 25 years, I also knew how few people would actually show up. Tweets about the importance of jobs and investment and the demands that I solve the problem of unemployment and low economic growth in Jamaica. Red herrings about other environmental problems. Arguments that since our current power plants were also polluting, more pollution wouldn’t matter. If things really got heated, threats, insults, outright lies, racial and classist insinuations. Could I face it yet again?

Can we really wave that away with the argument that Jamaica’s impact on global climate, even with this new coal plant, is negligible?

As I write, the world faces 14 straight months of global record breaking warm temperatures, described on many websites in the dispassionate language of science. Disease vectors like mosquitoes are spreading outside their previous latitudes and so are the diseases they carry. Wildfires rage earlier and longer. Land cracks in droughts and is washed away in floods. The largest living structure in the world, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia had its most serious bleaching event ever – roughly 22% of this wonder of the world is dead. All over the world, the people most vulnerable to extreme climate events are displaced, impoverished and die. You think there is a refugee crisis now? Wait until large areas of the globe are uninhabitable. And yet real reductions in greenhouse gases have not been achieved, despite decades of international meetings, agreements and stated good intentions.

And the reaction of the international donor community, the large emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, so far? Relatively small sums of money to countries like Jamaica for “climate resilience” projects. Two days after the announcement of the 1000MW coal fired plant in Jamaica, there was also an announcement of a US$7.2 million fund to be granted in loans to small and medium sized businesses for climate projects. I can imagine the kind of thing – small solar panels, energy conservation, terracing for farmers, investigation into dry weather farming. All of it utterly inadequate to meet the scale of the crisis. All of it useless if we are going to continue pouring greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

In July 2016, a team of economists from the London School of Economics published a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience hailing the progress China has made in reducing coal consumption. According to an article in the Guardian newspaper on July 25th, 2016, “China is the world’s biggest polluter and more than tripled its coal burning from 2000 to 2013, emitting billions of tonnes of climate-warming carbon dioxide. But its coal consumption peaked in 2014, much earlier than expected.”

Clean power in China is increasingly rapidly – solar up 28% in 2016, wind and hydropower both up 13%. Yet China continues to build coal plants at home, despite a utilization rate of just under 50%, although the central government reportedly ordered provincial governments to suspend new approvals in 13 provinces and regions through 2017. Put another way, as China cleans up at home, it is beginning to export its coal and build new coal plants in developing countries like Jamaica where environmental controls are weak.

Global coal consumption started falling in 2014 and continued in 2015, according to a report produced by Coalswarm, entitled “Boom and Bust 2016 – Tracking the global coal plant pipeline”. Yet, even in the face of this decline, “…338 GW of new coal capacity is in construction worldwide, and 1,086 GW is in various stages of planning—the equivalent of 1,500 coal plants. The amount of overspending on these potentially unneeded plants amounts to US$981 billion, or close to one trillion dollars.” Jamaica seems eager to join this dangerous juggernaut, which is entirely at odds with holding temperature increase to 2 degrees Centigrade, never mind 1.5 degrees, the latter being the position of the Caribbean delegation to the Paris Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change in December 2015.

The language of science has failed. Emotion is urgently needed. At stake is the living planet, our blue earth, our one and only home. And it is almost too late. Are we, as a global community, really going to allow the big users and exporters of coal to be able to point to reduced emissions at home, while new coal plants are built in developing countries, like Jamaica? Are we really going to let a single industry, the fossil fuel industry, destroy our CLIMATE? Are we really going to vote for deniers of this existential threat to lead the most powerful countries in the world?

The proposed 1000MW coal plant in Nain, St. Elizabeth, in the middle of a community of small farmers, is not a fight for Jamaica. It is a fight for the Caribbean – and the world.

Diana McCaulay

DianaMcCauleyDiana McCaulay is an award-winning writer and environmental activist, resident in Kingston, Jamaica. Her most recent novel, Gone to Drift, was published by Papillote Press in February 2016. She has written two other novels, Dog-Heart and Huracan published by Peepal Tree Press. She is the founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust.