Striking a Balance with Coal

by Oscar Pocasangre:

Hit by a series of destructive hurricanes in recent years, El Salvador’s intense weather has left the country with significant infrastructural damage and many citizens without homes. Scientists claim this is just a glimpse of the full consequences of climate change, which affect developing countries more than the developed countries that have contributed to the problem the most.

“The effects of climate change are felt more strongly in countries like El Salvador, given the vulnerability in which big sectors of the population live,” explained Carolina Dreikorn, a United Nations Developing Programme (UNDP) officer based in El Salvador. Unfortunately, it is not easy for a government like El Salvador’s to make its own efforts to mitigate climate change while pushing for economic progress.

This was especially obvious on November 27, 2007, when the government approved the construction of a coal plant in the eastern province of La Unión that, once completed, will have a capacity of 250 megawatts—about one-fourth of the country’s current energy consumption. Ironically, the approval of the plant’s construction came the same day as the UNDP in El Salvador published a report on climate change urging the Central American country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The construction of a power plant in La Unión will bring progress to a region that desperately needs it. With 40 percent of its residents living in poverty, the city cannot afford to turn down any major foreign investment project.

Representatives from Fonseca Energía have claimed that the new power plant will generate around 1,500 jobs during the construction of the plant and 600 jobs once it is in operation. At the national level, Salvadoran economist William Pleitez has estimated that the power plant will contribute 0.3 percent to GDP growth and generate $20 million in tax revenues.

But the coal plant is not a silver bullet. In fact, as Dreikorn explained, “The power plant is a short-term solution for the country to provide energy given the increasing demand.” In the meantime, the coal-fired plant will be generating a fair amount of pollution, contaminating the air and water and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

While others fret about greenhouse gas emissions, though, residents of La Unión are more concerned with local environmental issues. They worry that the fishing industry will be disrupted by the release of hot water into a nearby bay and that farming will be affected because the sulfur contained in coal will produce acid rain. In response, the company has promised to invest $70 million in chimney scrubbers and other sophisticated systems to curtail environmental damage. But such technology will only reduce, not eliminate, the pollution from the plant’s construction and operations.

Despite the consequences, the government has decided to give the construction project a green light, arguing that the country needs this investment to support the increasing demand for energy and to fuel economic progress by improving local industry and reducing unemployment.

According to Jessica Faieta, resident coordinator of the UNDP in El Salvador, the national government is making a concerted effort to combat climate change, even with the recent authorization of the coal plant. Faieta explained to the Globalist that the plant itself does not pose as much of a problem as the fact that El Salvador suffers from severe deforestation, which inhibits the natural absorption of carbon dioxide. She also remarked that the plant does not mark a departure from the government’s commitment to fighting climate change.

Dreikorn was also quick to highlight the government’s efforts. She explained: “In late November 2007, the Interinstitutional Consultant Group—consisting of government agencies, private business, universities, and NGOs—was created to help with the implementation of the National Plan for Climate Change, which has all the potential to become a blueprint for national and local efforts.” Coal-fueled power plants like the one under construction in La Unión and the pollution they emit will only exacerbate the effects of climate change already being felt in El Salvador. It is questionable whether they can even deliver sustained progress. The country should therefore find alternative sources of energy to take its own actions to prevent flooded streets and washed-away houses. Otherwise, it will have to bear part of the blame—however small—as the severity of El Savador’s tropical weather worsens.