- North Samatera Hydro Energy (PT NSHE) wants to build the Batang Toru dam, a 510-megawatt project, in Indonesia. But, the discovery of a new primate species, the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), with under 800 individuals mostly inhabiting the project site, has alarmed activists and put the dam’s funding at risk.
- PT NSHE is at the COP25 climate summit this month extolling the project’s contribution to curbing global warming: company reps say the dam will reduce Indonesia’s carbon emissions by 4 percent. In fact, the nation is already counting the proposed project as part of its 2015 Paris Climate Agreement carbon reduction pledge.
- However, while the United Nations and Paris Agreement count most new hydroelectric dams as carbon neutral, recent science shows that tropical dams can emit high levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide; this especially occurs when reservoirs are first filled.
- Dams built over the next decade will be adding their greenhouse gas emission load to the atmosphere when the world can least afford it — as the world rushes to cut emissions to prevent a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. PT NSHE argues its dam will have a small reservoir, so will not produce significant emissions.
MADRID, Spain – COP25 isn’t only attended by delegates, NGOs, and activists; it also attracts national and transnational companies, all seeking something from the UN climate policy process.
An Indonesian power company, PT North Samatera Hydro Energy (PT NSHE), is a good example. Its representatives trekked to the 25th United Nations climate summit (the firm also had a presence at COP24 in Poland) to defend its reputation and salvage a $1.6 billion dam project whose future financing is in doubt due to strong socioenvironmental opposition.
“The government of Indonesia supports our project,” Emmy Hafild, senior advisor to the chairman of PT NSHE told Mongabay at COP25. “But with the bad reputation we’ve received [from environmentalists], I’m afraid banks are wary. That’s our biggest concern, and that’s why we’re here.”
She added: “We care about climate change and we need this project,” a cryptic declaration, which when unpacked, largely explains the company’s COP attendance. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long classified hydroelectric dams as “Green,” producing minimal greenhouse emissions — though, that’s an assumption that has been seriously challenged by recent science, especially in regard to the greenhouse gas emissions from tropical dams especially at the beginning, but throughout their life cycle.
The dam and the orangutan
PT NSHE began pursuing the construction of the Batang Toru dam, a 510-megawatt hydroelectric project, in 2008. It put in place the policies and documentation required to apply for a loan with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) by 2017.
Then, as Hafild noted, “the orangutan came into the picture.”
Two years ago, primatologists announced a rare find — a new species of primate, the Tapanuli orangutan, only the eighth great ape ever described. Scientists believe just under 800 Pongo tapanuliensis remain in the wild, and they live in the dense rainforest habitat all around the proposed dam site.
News stories last year heralded the orangutan discovery, while quoting environmentalists and scientists who said that PT
NSHE’s hydroelectric project endangered the rare species by threatening its Batang Toru habitat through tree removal, road construction, and the flooding the dam would produce.
“With only 800 individuals of this species remaining,” Erik Meijaard, director of Borneo Future and an orangutan expert, said in a news report, “the hydro-dam will significantly increase the likelihood of extinction.”
The environmental controversy resulted in the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank backing away from the project. Then the Bank of China (BoC) stepped in, saying it would provide initial financing and construction through state-owned company, Sinohydro. In March, BoC publicly noted environmentalists’ concerns and said it was reevaluating involvement. Today, project funding remains unsure.
PT NSHE makes environmental claims
At the lavish Indonesian pavilion at COP25, Hafild narrated an hour-long program Friday, December 6, extolling the environmental virtues of the Batang Toru dam project. She insisted the orangutan habitat would not be disturbed, but rather in time, would be enhanced through improved protected areas.
Important among her defenses: the low carbon emitting hydroelectric dam will replace a carbon-polluting diesel-fired powerplant.
The dam, if built, would serve 400,000 households, the same as the old power plant, she said, but reduce Indonesia’s carbon emissions by 4 percent. In fact, Indonesia is already counting the proposed project as part of its 2015 Paris Climate Agreement carbon reduction pledge, its UN Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) to reduce the nation’s overall emissions by 23% by 2025.
“A 4 percent reduction is equivalent to 1.6 million tons of carbon annually not going up into the atmosphere,” Hafild said. She asserts that a 4 percent emissions reduction is equal to saving 12.3 million trees or 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres) of old-growth forest annually.
Orangutans at risk
None of this sits well with environmentalists and ecologists who oppose the project. They don’t trust PT NSHE’s claims of environmental stewardship, nor Indonesia’s spotty record in protecting the world’s third-largest rainforest.
Today, the country is among the world’s top ten emitters of greenhouse gases, with the largest portion of carbon emissions coming from land use change, especially deforestation and peatland fires related to agribusiness expansion, mostly for the oil palm industry —Indonesia is also still a heavy user of carbon-dirty coal.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, program director for International Rivers in Costa Rica, has closely followed the Batang Toru project. She said the company is at COP25 primarily for greenwashing because construction financing is in doubt.
She believes the project will gravely damage Tapanuli orangutan habitat: “The dam will fragment populations and decrease their genetic diversity to the point where they will die out,” she wrote in an email to Mongabay.
Ian Redmond, a tropical field ecologist best known for his long career studying mountain gorillas, agrees, writing that: “Ensuring the survival of the most recently described member of our zoological family is a matter of global concern. The best outcome for the region and for the Tapanuli orangutans would be for Batang Toru to be proposed as a World Heritage Site” and the dam project shut down.
Carbon cutting or greenwashing?
Rare orangutans aside, there is the question of whether replacing a diesel-fired power plant with a hydroelectric dam will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When comparing the sooty cloud of pollutants rising from a smokestack to the open waters of a reservoir, the assumption as to which is a cleaner source of energy seems obvious — but it isn’t.
Studies of dams large and small, especially tropical dams, over the last decade have concluded that hydroelectric projects do create significant emissions beyond those generated with the initial cutting of trees to make way for reservoirs, roads and transmission lines; or the utilization of large amounts of carbon-intensive concrete in construction.
When tropical land is flooded to make a reservoir, a large mass of plants gets submerged. When those plants die, they become a major source of organic carbon at the bottom of the reservoir.
“Due to the lack of physical mixing, and high rate of oxygen consumption, the reservoirs contain very low levels of oxygen,” explains Stanford University’s Katy Ashe. “When anaerobic degradation of carbon occurs by bacteria… methane is produced as a byproduct… This methane is transported directly to the air by the form of bubbling or by off-gassing of the waters.” This off-gassing occurs when water emerges from the turbines under high pressure and is released into the river downstream.
The vegetation biomass and carbon-rich soils flooded when the reservoir is filled produces an enormous peak of emissions in the first few years of a dam’s operation. Critically, any new dam put into operation over the next decade, will be adding its greatest emissions to the atmosphere at precisely the time when global warming must be controlled to stay within the limits set in the Paris Agreement and to avoid crossing a climatic tipping point.
After the large initial peak of emission, the oxygen-poor tropical reservoirs continue producing greenhouse-gas emissions for their entire working lives, although at a lower level than during the initial peak. Decaying plants and other carbon sources at the bottom of the reservoir emit methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.
Despite scientists’ warnings that tropical dams are adding to climate change not inhibiting it, national governments in Asia, Africa and Lain America go on building them — while often making wild, sometimes unsubstantiated claims to the UN that their dams produce clean, emissions-reducing, energy.
To build or not to build
So, the question becomes: does PT NSHE’s company claim that the Batang Toru dam will decrease Indonesia’s carbon-emission footprint by 4 percent actually hold water, or is that claim so much hot air (or methane) adding to the world’s atmospheric woes? PT NSHE points out that it plans to build a run-of-river dam, meaning the project will have a small reservoir which should reduce its emissions compared to standard large reservoir construction.
But that doesn’t mean the Batang Toru dam will produce zero emissions. A global study in 2016 found that three greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide were all being emitted in significant amounts from 267 reservoirs across six continents.
Importantly, those researchers noted that methane “has a higher global warming potential over the shorter 20-year time horizon,” in which it is critically important that nations curb their emissions. In fact, methane’s effect is 86 times greater than that of CO2 when considered on that two-decade timescale, according to the last IPCC assessment (the AR-5).
This is the timeframe within which global warming must be contained to avert disastrous consequences. Over a longer 100-year timeframe, methane’s effect on global warming is 34 times greater, and nitrous oxide’s effect is almost 300 times greater, than carbon dioxide per ton. Globally, scientists estimate reservoirs contribute 1.3% of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to global rice paddy cultivation.
However, the world’s tropical dams are still not counted in United Nations emissions assessments. In fact, the world’s countries continue to be eligible under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to receive carbon credits for newly built dams — a greenhouse gas emissions accounting loophole that analysts say needs to be closed.
“The role of hydroelectric dams in emissions inventories and in mitigation has been systematically ignored,” and urgently needs to be addressed by the United Nations, according to Philip Fearnside, a researcher who has studied many dams in the Brazilian Amazon.
But that’s a carbon accounting loophole that won’t be addressed in COP25 rulemaking, which means it is likely to remain permanently in place when the Paris Agreement goes into effect next year.
Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, covers climate change and climate policy for Mongabay; this is his sixth UN climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso
Banner image caption: A female Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). Image by Tim Laman under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
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