Australia’s hopes to expand coal exports in south-east Asia ‘delusional’, experts say

Adam Morton Environment editor
Photograph: Kelly Barnes/AAP

The number of new coal-fired power plants starting construction across south-east Asia has fallen markedly over the past two years as Australia has increasingly looked to the region to expand its thermal coal exports.

Analysis by US-based climate research and advocacy group Global Energy Monitor found work on only 1.5 gigawatts of new coal generation – equivalent to one large Australian plant – began in the region in the six months to June, all of it in Indonesia.

It follows construction starting on plants with a capacity of 2.7 gigawatts last year, a 57% fall below 2017 levels and 79% less than in 2016.

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While coal plants take years to build and some under construction are yet to come online, analysts said it raised doubts about whether demand in south-east Asia would continue to grow as the Morrison government expected.

The government’s chief economist reported in September that south-east Asia was expected to be a key source of growth for thermal coal exports as demand from the biggest markets in Japan, China and Korea declined in coming years. The region increased imports by 15% in 2018 and was the only area in which coal’s share of electricity generation rose.

But Ted Nace, Global Energy Monitor’s executive director, said the latest data suggested the expected south-east Asian thermal coal expansion could turn out to be “more fizz than boom”.

He said as the impetus to combat the climate crisis grew, it was increasingly difficult to get people to commit the hundreds of millions needed to build a coal generator.

“The number of plants entering construction during the first six months of 2019 is extremely low and we see this decline continuing,” he said.

Coal plant construction starts in south-east Asia

The Morrison government says it is committed to the Paris agreement goals, including limiting global heating to as close to 1.5C as possible. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year estimated that reaching the goal would require a 59% to 78% cut in coal use for electricity by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, followed by deeper reductions by mid-century.

Despite this, documents released to the Australian Conservation Foundation under freedom of information laws show department advice to Scott Morrison before a visit to Vietnam in August “strongly recommended” he focus on expanding coal exports. The emailed advice said the potential growth in exports to Vietnam could “partially mitigate declining exports elsewhere, notably China”.

The Global Energy Monitor analysis identified Vietnam as having the largest number of coal projects at pre-construction stage in south-east Asia, with 22.9 gigawatts proposed. It found another 26.4 gigawatts had been cancelled over the past five years before being built and work on only 1.5 gigawatts had begun since the end of 2016.

Across south-east Asia, 53.4 gigawatts of capacity is listed as at pre-construction stage but 69.6 gigawatts have been cancelled since 2015.

Remaining pre-construction coal power pipelines in south-east Asia

About three-quarters of Australia’s thermal coal export earnings are tied to three countries – Japan (45% of sales), China (16%) and South Korea (15%). The government’s office of the chief economist forecasts sales to Japan and Korea to steadily decline as the countries move away from coal. China is considered less predictable, in part due to the potential for abrupt changes in government policy.

Tim Buckley, from thinktank the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said the number of Asian coal projects to have secured financial backing had fallen by between 50% and 70% over the past three years, while the rate of plant closures had increased 50%.

He said it suggested Australia’s thermal coal sales would steadily decline over two-to-three decades. “Any suggestion that thermal coal exports have growth potential is delusional or outright misleading,” he said.