Many cultures have a parable or saying for the choice we confront when facing a fork in the road – that moment of decision when the direction we take determines the rest of our journey through life. For the governments and people of the Greater Mekong region, that moment has arrived.
The choice we must make now, without further delay, is between two diverging paths toward how we power our future. One of these, at first glance, looks easier than the other, for it is simply an extension of the path we’ve been on for the past century by burning fossil fuels and, more recently, damming the Mekong River and its tributaries to harness hydroelectric power. However, a major new study from conservation organization WWF and partners across the Greater Mekong region, conducted by the Australian consulting firm Intelligent Energy Systems (IES), persuasively documents how staying on this path is likely to lead to a catastrophic future — both for our children and the planet.
The other fork is less familiar and therefore may seem daunting at first. But as the overwhelming wealth of scientific evidence and economic analysis synthesized in the report shows, it is the only one that leads to a safer and more prosperous future – one powered by clean, virtually inexhaustible and ultimately cheaper renewable energy technologies. Can it really be done? Absolutely. But to understand how, let’s first take a look at the business-as-usual path we’re on now.
National energy plans currently envision meeting the Mekong region’s growing needs with coal, gas and hydropower – each of them among the worst choices that could be made from environmental, social or economic perspectives. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – cause climate change, which already is making itself felt throughout the region. Within 40 years, according to U.N. projections, the whole of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam could be under more than 1.5 m of water due to rising sea levels and flooding. Better stock up on rice now – and find a high shelf to store it on.
In Thailand, experts have warned that major parts of Bangkok could eventually be underwater due to a combination of rising sea levels and sinking land. Some of these forecasts can still be avoided, but they won’t be if we continue to burn fossil fuels and fail to start tackling climate change now.
Enter dam-generated hydropower, which some have portrayed as a sustainable energy solution. However, most dams planned along the Mekong River and its tributaries, together with those already in place or under construction, will block the migration of key fish species, reducing the catch from the world’s largest freshwater fishery by as much as one third. Sediment retained in reservoirs will cause the Mekong delta in Vietnam to sink, making it even more vulnerable to sea level rise. Rice production will be affected, both by saltwater intrusion and by the diminishment of nutrient-rich sediments from upstream. The impact on food security, in a region heavily dependent on fish and rice, could be devastating.
Climate change only adds to the damage that large unsustainable dams pose to fisheries, agriculture and water quality for millions of people across the region – think of it as the “Great Multiplier.”
To defeat climate change, we need to do two things: transition off the fossil fuels that cause it; and eliminate, or at least reduce, those stresses that undermine the ecosystem’s resilience and ability to adapt to climate impacts that are already occuring. How? By choosing the other path outlined in the Power Sector Vision 2050 Report
The WWF report lays out a realistic roadmap for doing this, based on a mix of commercially available solar, wind and geothermal technologies, supplemented by existing hydropower and biogas facilities and, critically important, improvements in energy efficiency. It also shows how, despite the upfront costs of converting to renewable technologies, the business case for doing so is overwhelming.
This renewable electricity report offers three scenarios for 2050. By following the Business as Usual Scenario that is currently planned in the region, Greater Mekong countries will generate 63 percent of their power from fossil fuels, five percent from nuclear and 16 percent from hydropower dams. The heavy reliance on fossil fuels results in 771 million tons of carbon emissions, which will increase global warming and other damaging forms of climate change.
However, the other two scenarios paint a much different picture. Under the Sustainable Energy Scenario 14 percent of energy is derived from fossil fuels, 86 percent from renewables and only 112 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere (an 85 percent reduction from Business as Usual).
An even more ambitious Advanced Sustainable Energy Scenario results in 100 percent of energy from renewables and zero carbon emissions.
Both of the Sustainable Energy Scenarios anticipate 30 percent less energy demand due to energy efficiency programmes. And both of them will significantly reduce the region’s dependence on fossil fuels or future uranium imports; accelerate access to electricity for all; ensure stable electricity prices for decades to come; increase job creation; increase positive cooperation in the region to optimise electricity consumption and production; and reduce the environmental and social impacts of traditional power generation, notably unsustainable hydropower.
A sustainable high renewable energy uptake approach can ensure electricity cost stability and maintain system security – that is, provide enough electricity at all times to make sure there’s never a risk of the ‘lights going out’. The sustainable energy scenarios are 100% possible: they rely on realistic projections for proven technologies, and are economically competitive with (and potentially cheaper than) “business as usual.”
Back to that fork in the road: The challenges we face today in choosing the right path may seem daunting, but they are nothing compared to the challenges our children will face tomorrow if we choose the wrong one. This is our responsibility; our choice. And we need to make it now, before our indecision makes it for us.
Jean-Philippe Denruyter is an energy specialist for WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme. firstname.lastname@example.org