Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How A Far Away Island Can Rock Your World


I'm hoping my bank will still be open next Monday. Most of us are trying to get through the next week. Half of us can't live without the next paycheck.

Will Europe survive? Despite the smiling faces of banking experts on TV, too many signs say "Wecome to the Great Depression". And some 1930's-style slowdown isn't the worst that could happen.

In the constant drum-beat of beat-down times, it's pretty hard to care what is happening somewhere else, in places we don't ever hear about. That climate stuff, that's years away too, except for the weird weather this year.

This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. I'm going to convince you that a relatively small island on the other side of your world can break the climate wide open.


Strange fires in Asia helped start the hottest year on record, before 2010. They are burning again right now, blanketing South East Asia with acrid smoke. And loading up the atmosphere with a new burst of carbon, possibly as large as the exhaust from every car on Earth.

The tropical forest blaze, larger than Amazon fires, is on Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia. What happens there, could determine whether we make it, as a civilization, or eventually, as a species.

We'll hear from Dr. Florian Siegert in Munich Germany, who can see it all from space.

Indonesia is also the world's second largest coal exporter. That feeds the second largest coal power race on the planet: India. 173 new coal-fired plants have been approved this year alone. It's a mania that is already failing, even while it destroys so much.

Peasants and fishermen have been killed by police protecting coal plant sites from protests. The scale of ecological damage is amazing. The threat to our climate frightening.

We don't hear anything about this, as we pray our jobs will keep going, or worry we'll never get another one.

But we'll talk with Indian electricity expert Shankar Sharma to get the real picture. You'll hear the sounds of protests, and learn how this global coal resistance is hooking up Indian peasants to the poorest people in Appalachia, USA.


We won't have to wait until 2050 to find out what happens if the coal rush plays out. As Steve Connor, the Science Editor for Britain's "Independent" newpaper wrote July 5th, pollution from the one-new-one-a-week Chinese coal plants has hidden the true warming impact in a phenomenon known as global dimming. We started covering global dimming in this Radio Ecoshock show in 2006.

The new Indian coal plants, growing like mushrooms along the coast, will do the same. For a few years. But that protective smog lasts only a few years at most, and could clear in less than a month, if production suddenly stopped. Perhaps after a solar flare. Or a really big economic break-down. Or riots.

When the "wisp of smoke", as James Lovelock called it, is washed out of the atmosphere, we could experience a severe heating event. This could manifest locally, or globally. No one knows.

I asked Dr. Florian Seigert about this, but that was not his specialty.

We did discuss whether the peat fires of Indonesia in 1997 helped power the planet into the record-breaking heat of 1998.

[Siegert interview in audio]

Learn about peat fires and Professor Florian Siegert's work in this article.

These are my conclusions, based on Dr. Siegert's interview, but also on talks with other scientists.

* Indonesia is burning off tropical forests faster than anywhere else on Earth, including the Amazon. This releases vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

* even so, the carbon emissions from Indonesian peat fires is even greater.

* scientists calculated Indonesian peat fires amounted to 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity in 1997. A huge burst of carbon, that was measured immediately at the Hawaii measuring station. The rate of increase of CO2 doubled at the Manu Loa station that year.

* 1998 was the hottest year on record until 2010.

* this single "peat fire bomb" may have triggered the continuing increase of global warming gases around the world from other natural sources.

* research at the University of Exeter, led by Dr. Sebastian Wieczorek and Professor Peter Ashwin suggests that as global temperatures rise, peat can spontaneously catch fire, like an overheated compost pile. We don't know when that will happen.

* although up to a third of our carbon dioxide emissions has been sequestered by the ocean, the impact of carbon bursts from peat fires is more or less immediate. The greenhouse effect does not wait for years or decades. The existing carbon raises temperatures immediately, except for any temporary cooling effects from smoke.

* there is more tropical peat in the Amazon of South America, and in Africa. But we think Indonesia has the most by volume - up to 50 meters, or 164 feet deep.

* if the peat in the northern Permafrost thaws, dries, and then burns, a major extinction event is inevitable.

* more carbon is being released from forest fires in Indonesia and South East Asia than in the Amazon. Hardly anyone knows this. There is no campaign comparable to saving the Amazon.


According to Dr. Siegert, the biggest releases from Indonesian peat fires are caused by corporations and foreign investors.

Some peat forests have been drained and burned for palm oil plantations. That is supposed to create a so-called "green' biofuel, some sold in Europe, claiming to help the climate.

In reality, when we remember Indonesia, palm oil from peat lands is among the most climate damaging fuels on Earth. Palm oil biofuel taken from cleared peat lands releases 5 to 10 times more carbon dioxide than the fuel burned in the final car or power plant. This project is dangerously insane.


The peat fires are back in 2011. In mid-September, the Indonsian government acknowledged 1200 "hot spots" on their island of Sumatra. Thick smoke blankets Sumatra, and pollutes Singapore and Malaysia to the East. In desperation, Indonesia is trying to create rain. There is no other way to put the peat fires out.

Hundreds more fires have broken out on the nearby Kalimantan, which is Indonesia's part of Borneo.

That's a new name to learn: Kalimantan. Forests are being burned there to clear the land for more and more open pit coal mines.

A World Bank study in 2007 claimed Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The government of Indonesia disputes and protest this. Since there is no true country-by-country measurement of emissions, beyond untrustworthy figures given by national governments, we don't really know.

We do know this: on top of those humungous peat fires, and record breaking burning of other tropical forests and deforestation, Indonesia provides enough coal carbon to reach a high rating among world polluters.

This is information you need to know.

If the latest flooding from extreme precipication events missed your area, lucky you. Maybe drought hasn't burned away your local agriculture. Maybe the freaky summer beach weather in early fall is fun.

But we are only part way there. I still hope to pursuade everyone that on this small planet, no matter what the headlines about the economic break-down may be, events in Asia are set to destabilize the climate for thousands of years.


Indonesia is the second largest exporter of coal in the world, following only Australia. Russia trails far behind at number three, with half the coal exports of Indonesia.

In 1985, Indonesia mined 2 million tons of coal. By the year 2000, that was 233 million tons. In 2010 it was 320 million tons, with 380 million projected for 2011.
Source here and here.

Indonesia depends on coal to power it's growing industrial base. In 2008, Indonesia burned 79 million tons of coal, mostly to produce electricity, and exported 160 million tons - twice domestic consumption.

The country's lower grade coal is only suitable for burning in power stations, so it is called "thermal coal". Indonesia is the world's largest provider of seaborne coal to power stations.


The government of Indonesia does not plan to cut back it's carbon emissions to save the climate.

Locally, Indonesia intends to expand coal as a source of energy from 17% to 33% by 2025. That includes replacing oil by liquifying coal, a horrible dirty way to get energy.
The country has 35 new coal-fired power plants planned, but only about half of them are being built so far, according to Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has released a report on the heavy impacts of this coal mining and transportation scheme on Indonesians. (In English) (In Indonesian)

The national energy policy is to double coal exports. Indonesia has mostly lower grade coal, which burns less efficently, and is used almost exclusively to fire electricity generating plants.

While there are plenty of coal ships running from Indonesia to China, Japan, and every Asian country, the biggest customer is India. India will drink up the coal of Indonesia, in a wild national dream to build hundreds more coal plants. Really, it's a dark nightmare. If the Indian coal plants become reality, life as we know it seems doomed.


This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. Let us learn about India and electricity, with our next guest. I'll follow that with more coal activist news in India, our biggest hope at the moment.

[exclusive interview with Shankar Sharma in audio only]

I would like to thank Justin Guay of Sierra Club India for arranging this interview. This Justin Guay article in a Sierra Club blog has all the links to take you into the wild world of the Indian Coal Rush.

Pay special attention to this article from - associated with the Wall Street Journal. Big Indian banks are at risk, could even go under, due to the massive growth of loans to coal plant builders. More on that below.

Never mind that a political dispute on one Indian coal mining region (Telangana, formerly Hydrabad) has caused hours long blackouts in nearby States. Even the tech services out of Bangalore are threatened with blackouts due to lack of coal. There goes your tech support.


Let's get back to Indonesia, as the biggest provider of India's coal, and the CO2 emissions. Indoensia has big coal reserves on the tropical island of Sumatra. These are undeveloped so far. Most of their big mines are in Kalimantan, their part of the island of Borneo.

The Indonsian government owns the biggest mines. Some they run directly, others they contract out. The largest private coal miner is Bumi Resources. That company has two subsidiaries: Pt Artumin Indonesia, and PT Kalmin Prima Coal, called "KPC".

India's biggest corporate conglomerate, Tata, has purchased 30% of both these Indonesian coal mining subsidiaries. Tata has big coal-fired plants with more under construction.

The mad rush to build coal plants for India would blow the mind of any misinformed Western person. Because India is long past it's own peak coal production, the country must import from countries like Indonesia and Australia.

Coal plants require whole rivers worth of water for cooling, in those big towers. But India, as we heard from Shankar Sharma, is already parched for drinking water. The only solution is to buiild new power plants near the ocean. Part of the electricity generated would be used to power desalinization plants, just to get cooling water from the ocean. That uses a lot of energy, emitting still more carbon, before any power hits the transmission lines.

Take the single state of Andhra Pradesh, along the Eastern sea coast. Sixty three coal fired power plants, 8 times current production, 56 Gigawatts of coal powered electricity is planned.


In a country famous for corruption, environmental reviews and the rights of people already living in the area are thrown out the window. Seeing themselves thrown off, their agriculture and fisheries ruined, these poor people are fighting off the coal rush as best they can.

See this article, "The Struggle Against India’s Coal Rush" by Mary Anne Hitt in Grist.

Or listen to audio of the protest battles in this week's Radio Ecoshock show.

[clip from NDTV]
That report was from NDTV. Here is a bit more:

[more from the protests]

The coal companies claim to occupy waste land, but really it is thousands of acres of wetlands with villages and fisheries ages-old, being devastated.


Meanwhile, Indoensia decided to raise their coal prices to meet international market prices. Suddenly, the cheap coal supplies for India are not so cheap. As we heard, on mega-project has stopped dead in mid-construction. Another is only partly operating.

The coal builders want to raise electricity rates, breaking promises. Consumers are up in arms, the government is dithering.

There are signs this Indian coal plant building was a kind of real estate ponzi scheme. With set-backs from public protests, court rulings and escalating coal costs, some projects are heading toward bankruptcy. This could damage or break some banks in India, whose loans to power companies rose 47% since 2009. Bank loans doubled. Another banking scandal is brewing in India. Will they ask for a government bail-out as well?


Most of Indian power generation comes from State government owned operations. They will likely continue to try to satisfy public demand for more power. If they keep on with coal-fired electricity, we may all be fried by greenhouse gases.

As we heard from Shankar Sharma, there are plenty of other options for India. Solar power alone has a much greater potential than all India needs.

Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute was on Radio Ecoshock discussing the problems of crop tolerance for climate change. Rice, he said, was already at the top of it's temperature range. Just two degrees added heating could threaten or end the Indian rice crop.

India is also dependent on the monsoon rains, which can be changed along with the climate. Northern India, and Pakistan, depend on the regular melting of glaciers. If those glaciers melt too fast, first floods, then an ever-lasting famine strike almost a billion people in the future.

India depends upon our climate of the past millenia, as much as well do. Coal cannot be the answer.


People in the West need to expand their view, to see a global problem. There is no part of the world which doesn't matter. Not now.

When I visited India, trains in the South were still running on coal.

When I landed in Jakarta, the capital and mega-city of Indonesia, there was a new reef. It was formed of all the human-power rickshaws grabbed by the government, and tossed into the sea. That was modernization under the dictatorship of the early 90's.

There were two roads into central Jakarta. One was a new toll freeway, almost empty except for the odd Mercedes. Below it, a constant traffic jam of the real Indonesia, on the pot-holed free road. At that time, there was a Western-style mall downtown. Inside there was everything you might find in Dallas, including a MacDonalds.

Outside, there were army men with machine guns to keep out undersirables, most of the people.

There has been a big change since then. Indonesia threw off the worst of it's censorship. The hated Dictator was replaced with a Democracy.

But Indonesia apparently cannot control the peat fires sending dangerous burst of carbon into the world atmosphere. Cannot control world-record destruction of their tropical forest.

Indonesia plans to flood the world air with even more coal and carbon, by increasing coal mining, exports, and local burning. That is their national plan.

What is our plan, to deal with it?

Global environment organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have recognized the danger of just letting countries like Indonesia and India plunge into a coal-based economy. Both write reports you should read. Both help organize protests, and work to empower the local people displaced and polluted to death by the coal industry. Sierra Club has organized a workshop to connect coal protesters in India with coal victims in Appalachia.

We must support their work.

But really, our plan so far is to remain ignorant. To pretend that what happens on one part of the Earth will not affect us here. To pretend there is nothing we can do about it.

Is that our game? To wait, to hold conferences, to make rules nobody follows, until the climate is wrecked for all generations?

I hope we can do better than that. We have the all the renewable tools we need - to forget coal, to leave it in the ground forever.

Please join, become aware, become active, care, and act on your caring.

Feel free to visit our web site at Download our programs and send them far and wide.

I'm Alex Smith. Thank you for participating in Radio Ecoshock.

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