Stringent coal-fired power plant emission standards needed for coal-dependent South and Southeast Asian countries

Coal power capacity will continue to increase in South and Southeast Asia, increasing air pollutant and carbon dioxide emissions, if controls are not implemented.

There are weak emission standards for coal-fired power plants (CFPs) in most countries in those regions, and poor enforcement of standards. This places the environment and public health at a greater risk than that already being faced, necessitating immediate action, according to Clean Air Asia’s “Coal-Fired Power Plant Emission Standards in South and Southeast Asian Countries Policy Analysis.”

The report aims to equip Asian governments with information that can help align their emission standards with international best practice standards and strengthen related enforcement policies, leading to cleaner air and the improved health of citizens.
The report analyzed the CFP situation and policies in five countries in South and Southeast Asia – Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam – which together comprise 31% of global planned coal capacity expansion. Emission standards for CFPs were reviewed in each country, and existing and planned policies on the following were summarized: CFP application processes, emissions monitoring and control, CFP data collection and reporting, coal handling, and national policies related to CFP dependence.

The report found that the coal dependence of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and the planned increase of coal capacity in Bangladesh and Pakistan warrant more stringent safeguards for the environment and public health.

Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Pakistan all have significant planned increases in coal capacity, with a minimum of doubling their current capacity. Bangladesh, now with only two operating CFPs and 10 approved and/or in the pipeline, would have the most notable shift to coal-based energy, while Indonesia has the highest existing megawatt coal capacity, and Vietnam has the highest coal capacity per capita. A 2019 study by Lin et al. found that every 1 kilowatt increase in coal capacity per person in a country increased the relative risk for lung cancer by a factor of 59%.

According to Health Effects Institute data, the focus countries were among the top 10 countries with the highest mortality burden from air pollution in 2019, with the exception of Vietnam which ranked 12th. The high health burden from air pollution in these countries risks being further exacerbated with an increase in CFPs combined with lenient emission standards and weak enforcement. At present, there is no government policy in all five focus countries requiring a health impact assessment before a CFP is approved.

In terms of emission limits, Indonesia has made the most progress in tightening emission standards and must focus on enforcement. The rest of the countries must work to fast-track the review, revision, and strict implementation of emission standards. The Philippines, Vietnam and Bangladesh are in the process of revising their emission standards. In particular, the sulfur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission standards of the Philippines are among the most lenient. Pakistan has the most lenient particulate matter (PM) standards, and does not fall far behind the Philippines in the leniency of NOx emission standards.

None of the countries regulate size-specific PM emissions from CFPs, which is important to prevent the health impacts due to the higher risks of exposure to finer PM. Regulating other criteria and toxic air pollutants, such as heavy metals, would also be ideal for all focus countries.

The adoption of emission standards and other CFP-related policies is also a challenge due to infrastructure, technology, and personnel capacity issues. Consultation with stakeholders has also highlighted the need for increased transparency, particularly on CFP emissions data. Real-time monitoring that is directly transmitted to regulators offers the most comprehensive and efficient way of monitoring compliance with emission standards and must be available and accessible to all to increase the public accountability of CFPs.

In moving forward, the following steps are recommended:

Stringent emission standards: Fast track the development of more stringent emission standards to protect public health and the environment, both for new and existing CFPs. Even with recently developed standards, the focus must be on the enforcement of these standards, which will drive CFPs to implement emission reduction measures such as using low-sulfur coal and the installation of air pollution control devices in order to comply with the standards. To continuously protect public health and the environment, periodic review and revision of standards must be done.

Transparency on CFP-related processes and data: From the application process to the permitting and operation of CFPs, transparency of documents and data is needed for greater accountability of CFPs to regulators and the public.

The implementation and enforcement of policies: Increase the capacity of regulators and relevant government agencies and personnel through trainings, workshops, and hands-on learning from partner agencies or countries with best practices. Capacity building activities must cover policy development and CFP emissions data management (collection, storage, and analysis). Efforts must also be made to strengthen the technical capacity of (a) government personnel to enforce standards and regulations; and (b) CFPs to comply with emission standards and regulations.

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