Earlier this year, citizens of Jakarta filed a lawsuit against the city government, the governors of West Java and Banten, and the central Indonesian government. Their demand? That elected officials address rising air pollution.
“The government needs to accept that Jakarta’s air quality is already bad, and develop a programme to target air pollution,” said Fajri Fadhillah, a legal assistant with the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, which is supporting the citizens’ lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes just months after a report from AirVisual IQ showed that in 2018 Jakarta had the worst air pollution of any city in Southeast Asia, ranking just ahead of Vietnam’s Hanoi. Not far behind the two capitals were several Thai cities. All of the “top” cities had average daily levels of the most dangerous air pollution—PM2.5—well above standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
It’s a common story across the region. As air pollution worsens, urban residents put more pressure on governments to address a key source—coal-fired power plants. These are perhaps the early signs of an air pollution movement that could impact the energy future of a region where energy demand is soaring.
“If you look at what’s happened in other Asian countries—Japan, Korea, China (and even in Europe)—concerns about air pollution have led them to require emissions controls to be installed,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a China-based coal and air pollution expert with Greenpeace.
To build a power plant where the economics are based on those plants not having to install emissions control, that’s a very risky bet.
Lauri Myllyvirta, coal and air pollution expert, Greenpeace
Coal-fired power plants are a key source of adverse health impacts from air pollution across the region, according to a report published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2017. The report also found that, if all planned plants are built, excess deaths in Southeast Asia would rise from the current roughly 20,000 a year to nearly 70,000 by 2030.
China cashing in on weak emission controls
The largest investors in coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia are Chinese banks. According to a January 2019 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, these institutions have invested or committed more than US$5.5 billion to develop over 6,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity in Indonesia, US$3.6 billion for 13,300 megawatts in Vietnam, and lower but still significant amounts in the Philippines and Cambodia.
It’s not just China. South Korea and Japan are also investing in large-scale coal plants in Southeast Asia, notably in Vietnam and Indonesia. Currently, nearly every country in the region has weak emissions control standards for power plants. In Indonesia, Greenpeace estimates that current standards allow for new plants to emit as much as 20 times the sulphur dioxide of new plants in China.
Similarly, in the Philippines, limits for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are 20 to 50 times above European or Chinese standards.
The fact that coal plants do not have to invest in costly scrubbers or other pollution-mitigation technologies makes them much cheaper to build. But if growing concerns about air pollution force governments to bring standards more in line with those in the United States, Europe or China, it could have a dramatic impact on costs.
“To build a power plant where the economics are based on those plants not having to instal emissions control, that’s a very risky bet,” said Myllyvirta.
Is Southeast Asia heading for its own ‘airpocalypse’?
A model for how this could impact the coal industry in Southeast Asia comes from its main funder. In the 1990s and 2000s, China’s rush to meet rapidly growing energy demands led to a flood of coal power station construction—at one time, the country was opening one a week. These had very low emission standards, which led to horrific air pollution in the late 2010s, dubbed the ‘airpocalypse’. The result was a swift change in public perceptions of coal.
“Up to that point, there was a sense that coal was the mainstay of energy and electricity, and it was going to grow for decades,” said Myllyvirta. “Suddenly, it became possible and even desirable to think about how to reduce reliance on coal.” Coal plant openings in China slowed earlier this decade, defying global expectations.
Myllyvirta thinks that something similar could happen in Southeast Asia. If it does, Jakarta would likely be at the forefront. Four power plants are planned, which together would encircle the capital region.
“They’re not even requiring those plants to put in even basic emissions controls,” said Myllyvirta. “It’s insane, especially if you think about the 20 million people in Greater Jakarta who will be exposed to that pollution.”
In Thailand, which has plans for over 3,000 megawatts of capacity, weeks of record air pollution earlier this year caused widespread school closures and the temporary shutdown of coal power plants. Initially, the pollution only affected the capital, Bangkok, but in more recent weeks the Chiang Mai region in the north has been hit hardest. Petitions on Change.org calling for action to reduce pollution have attracted tens of thousands of signatories, making them among the platform’s most popular campaigns.
Hanoi is facing a similar problem to Jakarta, accentuated by its location in a natural basin that traps dirty air. Media and public awareness of pollution is rising, according to Vo Thi Xuan Quyen, communication manager at the Green Innovation and Development Centre, an NGO based in the city.
The seeds of a clean air movement
Over the past three years, there has been “dramatically growing public awareness about the link between air pollution and health, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City” said Quyen, citing media reports, online discussion and public polling.
One of the challenges that Jakarta, Hanoi and other cities in the region face is that public perceptions of the causes and impacts of air pollution are often biased. Earlier this year, Vital Strategies, a non-profit based in Washington DC, released a report on air pollution perceptions in South and Southeast Asia based on news coverage and social media conversations from 2015 to 2018. They found that, despite its central role, coal does not get enough attention.
“When looking at perceived sources, we found that industrial emissions, or power plants, do not show up as a big source,” said Aanchal Mehta, communications lead at Vital Strategies and an author of the report. “Vehicular emissions is the predominant source [mentioned] … though not necessarily the most important source, especially from a public health perspective.” It is difficult to gauge what percentage of air pollution comes from coal power plants and what from vehicles.
While burning coal has been considered the number one cause of air pollution-related deaths in China, a study by the European Commission found traffic to be the biggest cause in South and Southeast Asia. Whatever journalists and members of the public believe the cause, they tend to concentrate on acute symptoms like itchy eyes and breathing difficulties, according to the Vital Strategies research. Only 5 per cent of media reports mentioned the far more life-threatening chronic impacts of particulate matter pollution, which include lung cancer and heart disease.
The citizens filing their lawsuit in Jakarta, called the Coalition for Clean Air Initiative, are planning active public education and engagement efforts around the city. As for the lawsuit, they expect an initial decision later this year. But they are almost certain that, if it is favourable, the government will appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court.
“We are thinking that the earliest we can get the final verdict is the end of 2020,” said Fajri. They plan to also engage the Jakarta governor as a potential ally, especially as the city is working on a strategy for air quality management.
For environmentalists and investors alike, the Jakarta lawsuit and growing public concern in Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia are worth paying attention to. If a clean air movement builds, it could have wide-ranging impacts in one of the last regions in the world still planning the massive expansion of coal power.