DeSmogBlog reader's comment prods thinking on World Bank coal-plant loan

My post about the World Bank loaning India $450 million to build a new coal-fired power plant prompted a DeSmog reader to ask if I’m “against the idea of a plant that has less pollution than previous ones?”

I’m not opposed to a less-polluting plant. As a committed opponent of global warming and greenhouse-gas emissions, I’m certainly in favor of reducing pollution.

But the plant in question is going to be burning coal.

The $450-million loan from the International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank, was up-front money for a planned $4 billion, 4,000 megawatt coal-burning power plant.

The World Bank and its affiliates provide loans to developing countries in exchange for reforms that remove constraints on global corporations seeking to invest or locate there. The loans are for construction of roads, ports, mines, hydroelectric dams, oil wells and pipelines – and coal-fired power stations.

Burning coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming, and air toxics. In an average year, a typical coal plant generates 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the primary human cause of global warming – the equivalent of cutting down 161-million trees. And that’s just the beginning.

Revenues rarely reach the poor, who are often displaced from their homes, suffer loss or damage to their natural resource base, and are placed in the front line of the climate upheaval the Bank's support for fossil fuels is helping to cause.

The reader suggested compromise while “technologies that mitigate pollution become economically viable for emerging countries. It's like driving that bad car, while you wait to afford the safer newer model.” Sounds reasonable.

But the Bank is building a new plant, not driving an old car. And after shoveling $4 billion into a new coal-fired power complex, the only way to justify the expense is by burning the filthy, health-hazardous fuel it was designed for.


I’m going to have to call on this. The World Bank does work towards reform for freer trade, but it does so within a framework of trying to increase aggregate welfare. That the bank is dominated by US interests is clear, and is call to action for reform, but this doesn’t make the World Bank inherently bad. You can’t take a readers comment, and then promote a sentence of it to a full article with a straw man rendition of the Bank’s operations.

There isn’t much joined up thinking going on at the World Bank, and that has been noted by economists, including Paul Collier, former head of research.

We know infrastructure works at increasing welfare, by growing the conditions required for industry, and therefore job creation. Whilst the power plant may not generate much in the way of local revenue, it will deliver power to 16 million people, at a cost of $250 per head. This is pretty cheap.

No bank will ever act on the basis of aesthetics, which is how the Green movement has largely conducted itself over the last few decades. The question is how to tie in ecological concerns with the aims of the bank. The underlying economics of climate change are still being worked through, and there seems to be little consensus within the near future.

It is no use proceeding on anticapitalist grounds. What can be done is highlighting ecosystem damage as a market failure, and showing how good management of ecosystem services leads to higher welfare in the long-term. We have to show to big lenders that the gains of solving climate change, as well as the mitigation of future losses are worth the risk of investment failure (in say an unproven technology).

The upshot of this, is that it becomes easier to recruit people who aren’t middle-class, affluent westerners to the cause. There is a perception that climate change is a concern that primarily preoccupies the minds of the suburban middle-classes of European welfare-states. Reframing the issue from one about damaging the natural environment to one of declining human welfare goes a long way towards gaining large-scale support.

When I read the original post, and the comment that generated this response, I reacted the same way. This is a brand new, expensive plant burning COAL. Once it’s in place it will be extremely difficult to phase out. Is it really impossible to get the job done without resorting to coal? Time to make a stand, I should think.

Fern Mackenzie

edited to add: I found this over at Grist, and it seems appropriate in this conversation.

Almost a century ago, Gandhi said, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West … If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

Due to lack of knowledge on this specific case, I don’t know the following. Can anyone comment with facts?

1) Coal plants all emit CO2.
2) They all emit other (bad stuff) in hugely-varying amounts.
3) Efficiencies vary as well.

I have no idea of the current population of coal-based power plants in India, i.e. how they rate on items 1)-3).

If building a spiffy new big plant allows *earlier* retirement of their worst-polluting older plants, it might actually be approximately neutral on CO2, and better on other pollutants.

I’ve heard of this case being made, or at least tried, in the US.

The real questions are:

a) What are the numbers?
b) Would anything else *actually* be retired earlier or not?

Given that GDP/person is strongly-influenced by energy/person [Ayres&Warr, Charlie Hall], it’s pretty hard to tell India “stay poor”.

Of course, it would be much better to:
a) Have practical CCS now.
b) Have something renewable that could obviate this.

VERY tough problem.

And this is the really big question, isn’t it? The Bush and Harper governments won’t commit to major emissions caps until India & China do so, and so on and so on … Here we are faced with a huge opportunity to make critical progress, and the situation is fraught with controversy. Does anyone dare to utter the “N” word? Is the “new nuclear” preferable to “clean” coal? I never thought I would even consider it, but we’ve learned a lot since Chernobyl.

Fern Mackenzie

Hello Fern!

France gets about 80% of its electric power for nuke power plants. Have you ever read about any problems with their nuke power program or with protests for the last 20 or so years?

Yes, some of France’s nuclear plants had to shut down during a hot summer because there was not enough water to cool the plants; so they had a power shortage. I think there are articles on DeSmogBlog about that; so you can search for them, Harold.