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False Solutions to Climate Change Promoted in Southeast Asia Pose Various Risks

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False Solutions to Climate Change Promoted in Southeast Asia Pose Various Risks

Instead of helping Southeast Asia wean itself off fossil fuels, ammonia-hydrogen co-firing solutions and CCS risk perpetuating their use and locking climate-vulnerable countries into a future of high emissions, air pollution and ecosystem disruption.

21 March 2024 – by Viktor Tachev   Comments (0)

Experts describe technologies like CCS and hydrogen-ammonia co-firing as false solutions to climate change since they perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, scientific evidence indicates that they also pose air pollution and health risks. Southeast Asian countries, which already suffer from the negative impacts of fossil fuels on climate, air quality, health and ecosystems, should consider that extending the lives of coal and gas plants will put wildlife, the environment and communities at increased risk. 

The Ammonia-Hydrogen Co-firing and CCS Investment Plans in Southeast Asia

At COP26, Japan said it would “lead the way in the clean energy transition, with a particular focus on Asia”. To achieve this, it planned to invest USD 1.1 trillion in public and private capital over the next 10 years in technologies as part of its Green Transformation Strategy (GX). Furthermore, through high-level vehicles like Japan’s Asia Zero Emissions Community (AZEC) and the Asia Energy Transition Initiative (AETI), Japan aims to export its methods and technologies across Southeast Asia.

Among the focus technologies are LNG, ammonia co-firing, blue hydrogen development and carbon capture and storage (CCS). However, the technologies risk impeding, instead of accelerating, the clean energy transition in the region.

Memorandums of understanding with various Asian countries cooperating on projects involving GX technologies are already in place. Among the target markets where Japan will fund or assist the development of ammonia co-firing and hydrogen plants, for example, are India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Some of the Memorandums of Understanding Between Japan and Southeast Asian Countries Partnering on Fossil Fuel Technologies, Source Price of Oil
Some of the Memorandums of Understanding Between Japan and Southeast Asian Countries. Source: Price of Oil

Experts describe the solutions as “false” and “a way to legitimise coal in the eyes of financiers and lenders”.

According to Kimiko Hirata, the founder of Kiko Network and Climate Integrate, Japan hasn’t explained the specifics of the GX to other countries in detail. As a result, they might struggle to recognise the false solutions within.

Experts: Asia’s Co-firing Strategy May Increase Emissions

Technologies like carbon capture and storage, ammonia and hydrogen co-firing will perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. As a result, they won’t prove effective in reducing emissions.

According to the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based research group, ammonia and hydrogen co-firing schemes may result in more emissions than simply burning coal or gas.

TransitionZero warns that Japan is misleading countries across Southeast Asia regarding its technologies’ carbon emissions-saving potential. For example, Japan’s goal of 20% ammonia co-firing at domestic coal power plants by 2030 is estimated to still generate nearly double the emissions of standard gas-fired power plants. Even 50% ammonia co-firing schemes would emit comparable emissions to gas power generation.

Emissions From Ammonia/Coal Co-Firing in Different Southeast Asian Countries, Source: Ammonia Coal Cofiring
Emissions From Ammonia-Coal Co-Firing in Different Southeast Asian Countries. Source: Ammonia Coal Co-firing

According to 350.org, Japan’s push for ammonia co-firing adoption in Southeast Asia risks preventing Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines from reaching net zero.

BloombergNEF concludes that even green ammonia-based scenarios wouldn’t align with a net-zero power sector.

The case is similar when it comes to blue hydrogen. The emissions of such plants can exceed those of conventional gas-fired power generation. Robert Howarth, professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University, says, “The science is clear: blue hydrogen is not ‘clean’, and burning it can be worse for climate change than simply burning fossil fuels outright.”

CCS projects, on the other hand, face notable efficiency challenges. While most projects claim to remove 85-95% of carbon emissions, Stanford scientists estimate that the actual efficiency can be as low as 10-11%. Other studies point out even lower figures.

The adoption of these technologies for power generation risks blocking the renewable energy transition, undermining energy security and worsening the climate crisis.

Environmental groups and civil society organisations have already expressed a strong opposition to the plans. CEED Philippines and Friends of Earth Indonesia accused Japan of treating their countries as testing grounds for its fossil-based technologies.

The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development in Front of the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Philippines, September 2022, Source: Fossil Free Japan
The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development in Front of the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Philippines, September 2022. Source: Fossil Free Japan

False Solutions Risk Exacerbating Existing Problems in Southeast Asian Countries

Experts warn that adopting Japan’s questionable technologies will prove a “costly strategic misstep” for Southeast Asia. However, the consequences won’t only take a toll on the economy. Scientists warn they will have adverse impacts on the environment and health.

A Future of High Emissions and Increased Climate Risk

The emissions intensity of Asian economies is 41% higher than the rest of the world. At the same time, they are among the most vulnerable to climate risk and extreme weather impacts, including droughts, floods, typhoons, sea level rise and heatwaves. 

In the past two decades, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand have been some of the worst-affected countries globally in terms of deaths from climate disasters. 

World Map of the Global Climate Risk Index 2000 – 2019, Source: Germanwatch and Munich Re NatCatSERVICE
World Map of the Global Climate Risk Index 2000–2019. Source: Germanwatch

The Philippines is facing the risk of unprecedented compound extreme weather events, according to the IPCC. Sea level rise in the country is higher than anywhere else – three times the global average since 1901. 

Vietnam is among the five most exposed countries to climate change, according to the World Bank. Ho Chi Minh is among the most vulnerable cities to rising sea levels globally.

Without urgent action to reduce emissions, heatwaves in Indonesia will last almost 8,000% longer by 2050. Meanwhile, climate disasters threaten around 180 million Indonesians living in coastal areas.

As a result of human-induced climate change, recently, Southeast Asia, alongside India and Pakistan, has suffered from extreme heatwaves and floods.

Dr. Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science and founder of the World Weather Attribution group. says that we must “stop burning fossil fuels and replace them with more sustainable, renewable sources of energy”. She adds, “Until we do that, extreme weather events intensified by climate change will continue to destroy lives and livelihoods.”

Air Quality Issues and Health Consequences

Around 92% of those living in the Asia-Pacific are exposed to air pollution levels that endanger their health. Between 2017 and 2022, 47 of the top 50 cities with the worst air quality have been in Asia, with India and Pakistan topping the charts. 

However, recently, South Asia has been shaping up to become the epicentre of global air pollution. According to scientific research, South and East Asia are topping the charts for the number of deaths due to long-term exposure to air pollution, including ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3). Globally, 5.13 million excess deaths per year come from ambient air pollution from fossil fuel use. They could potentially be avoided by phasing out fossil fuels. 

Annual deaths due to fine particulate matter.
Annual Deaths Due to Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) and Ozone (O3). Source: BMJ

Investments in co-firing technologies and CCS will further extend the lives of fossil fuel plants, locking countries into more air pollution.

A study by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) finds that displacing coal with ammonia substantially increases total pollutant emissions. For example, a 20% ammonia co-firing combustion rate can increase fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and other harmful substances by 67%. At a 50% co-firing rate, the increase is 176%.

Fuel mix scenarios
Source: CREA
Source: CREA

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to various adverse health conditions. According to the State of Global Air, these include ischemic heart attacks, lung cancer, respiratory infections, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and adverse birth outcomes, such as autism.

In Japan, fine particulate matter is responsible for 43,000 deaths per year, while in Indonesia, the figure is 94,000. In Thailand and Malaysia, it takes the lives of 32,000 annually. According to the WHO, in Vietnam, around 60,000 deaths each year are attributed to air pollution.

Country Average Deaths per 100 000 Population per Year Attributable to Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) and Ozone (O3), and With Fossil Fuel Related and All Anthropogenic Emissions Removed, Source: BMJ 2023;383:e077784
Country Average Deaths Attributable to Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) and Ozone (O3) and With Fossil Fuel Related and All Anthropogenic Emissions Removed. Source: BMJ

Aside from PM2.5, ammonia co-firing also produces other harmful emissions, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and more. It also poses a water contamination risk.

Southeast Asian Countries Shouldn’t Underestimate the Risks of False Solutions

Last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit was held in Jakarta, the world’s most polluted city at the time, following a once-in-200-year heatwave

To avoid a future that locks the region into fossil fuel usage, future ASEAN summits will require strong leadership in the transition to renewables.  

by Viktor Tachev

Viktor has years of experience in financial markets and energy finance, working as a marketing consultant and content creator for leading institutions, NGOs, and tech startups. He is a regular contributor to knowledge hubs and magazines, tackling the latest trends in sustainability and green energy.

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