By Nalau Bingeding

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, July 22, 2009) – There has been much debate on PNG Power’s proposal to build coal power plants to generate power. However, it is an out-of-date technology that defeats the world’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise global warming, and will only worsen PNG’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change and the global situation

Greenhouse gases (water, carbon dioxide, etc) have been here since time immemorial and are essential for maintaining a balance within the Earth’s energy system. The proportion of green house gases in the atmosphere or stored within the Earth’s crust and ecosystems has been in equilibrium since creation.

However, human activities since the 1800s, especially burning of fossil fuels, have generated more greenhouse gases which have been emitted directly into the atmosphere. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is 30 percent more than is necessary for energy balance.

Greenhouse gases trap solar energy and release it slowly back into space, keeping the Earth warm and suitable for plant and animal life. However, because of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere more of the incoming solar energy is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere while less is released back into space. The imbalance in the amount of solar energy entering and exiting the Earth’s atmosphere causes global warming, or heating up of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists believe that should the global temperature reach the threshold level of two degrees Celsius life could become uncomfortable for plants and animals. Worse still, it could lead to the extinction of life on Earth. Therefore the international community is taking serious measures to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from human activities to stabilise global warming. The world is moving more towards using clean, renewable energies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Our greenhouse gas emissions

Our annual greenhouse gas emissions from land use change and forestry, and fossil fuel and agriculture is 155 million metric tones. With a population of six million, our per capita emission of greenhouse gases is 26 metric tonnes. Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emission from fossil fuels and agriculture alone is 500 million metric tonnes. With a population of 20 million, Australia’s greenhouse gas emission per capita is 25 metric tonnes. This shows that our per capita emission is about the same as Australia’s and is four times the world’s average of 6-7 metric tonnes per capita. Moreover, if we add our emissions from the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas project and coal power plants we may become one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases

Coal power plants, people and the environment

Coal power plants are considered the dirtiest sources of electricity, spewing large amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, toxic mercury oxides and particles into the atmosphere annually. Carbon dioxide comprises 76 per cent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and is the primary contributor to global warming. Coal power plants have the highest output rate of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity produced and release large amounts of carbon dioxide annually. Sulfur dioxide blows over long distances before falling on land and causes environmental problems. It can combine with other pollutants to form dangerous compounds or combine with nitrogen oxides to form particulate matter, which is dangerous to the environment and human health. Particulate matter pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, cause respiratory irritation, lead to irregular heartbeats, and worsen asthma.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can dissolve in rain water to produce acidic compounds, mainly sulfuric and nitric acid. Acidic rainfalls have destroyed ecosystems and monuments such as statues and buildings. Acid rain destroys forests, devastates plant and animal life and causes lakes and rivers to turn acidic, making them unsuitable for sustaining plant and animal life.

Coal power plants are the second largest source of nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides can react with other volatile organic compounds to form smog, causing chest pains, increasing the risk of respiratory diseases, and can cause death from asthma attack or lung inflammation. The gas cannot be controlled and can travel hundreds of miles downwind from its source and pollute other areas.

Mercury is released into the air through the exhaust systems of coal power plants. When mercury falls on land and is washed into lakes, rivers and streams, it contaminates fish and other organisms including people who consume fish from these water bodies. Mercury is a toxic substance and it can affect unborn babies, causing brain damage, mental retardation, birth deformities and blindness. Babies feeding on mercury-contaminated breast milk can also be affected.

Nalau Bingeding is Research Fellow in the Social and Environmental Studies Division at the National Research Institute


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