What the ADB needs to do to keep it’s Asia Clean Energy Forum clean

By Renato Redentor Constantino*, Executive Director, NGO Forum on ADB, June 2008

The Asian Clean Energy Forum(ACEF) 2008 will be remembered as the event where the ADB finally decided to drop the term ‘clean coal’, after years of getting pilloried for its patronage of the thoroughly dishonest label. “Let us stop using clean coal or cleaner coal and just call it what it is – more efficient coal,” said ADB Vice President Bindu Lohani in one short sentence, which unequivocally recognized the validity of what many environmental and community NGOs have long insisted on – that there is no such thing as clean coal.

Unfortunately, however important the step, correctionary labeling is all that the ADB’s ACEF has done thus far. Since 2006, three ACEF annual events have by now come and gone and none of the events, whether singly or cumulatively, have made developing Asia feel more secure or safe against the anticipated consequences of blind, fossil-fueled economic growth. In fact, as of this writing, the ADB continues to put together massive financial plans geared towards the rapid expansion of what the bank still recognizes as the cheapest, most affordable source of energy.

And here is where the absurd irony lies. It was de rigeur for virtually every speaker in ACEF 2008 to start their speeches with the reminder that “it was time to act,” in reference to the climate crisis, which today constitutes the most gargantuan cost to the public that coal companies – and institutions such as the ADB – have in effect been passing on to the public.

ACEF occured in the midst of negotiations surrounding the future of our planet’s climate in Bonn, Germany. At stake – the possibility of a future international climate regime that would, many hope, call for more dramatic global greenhouse gas emissions starting with the developed world and the particularly rich, together with compensation for climatic impacts that can no longer be prevented.

It is an ambitious goal, and nowhere is it preordained that the talks will succeed. But more and more are taking hope in the fact that more and more have begun to realize that there are really no alternative pathways to drastic emissions cuts, save for more extreme ecological and economic crises.

Bonn constitutes an interesting backdrop, particularly for events such as the Asia Clean Energy Forum (ACEF) organized by the Asian Development Bank. Initiated in 2006 in response to campaign broadsides from civil society, which exposed the naked climate hypocrisy of the Bank’s transactional programs, the ACEF has since taken place every first week of June.

In partnership with USAID – the lead co-organizer, ACEF is a platform for “investing in solutions that address climate change and energy security.” ACEF attracts sustainable energy advocates and institutes as well as carbon brokers, dirty energy charlatans and leading members of the global consultancy industry. What the ACEF actually does for the ADB, however, is that it serves as a stage by which to demonstrate that the bank is doing something about climate change, instead of funding it. Apart from funding humongous coal giants such as the 4,000-MW Mundra Ultra Mega project of corporate giant Tata, the ADB also boasted of its increasingly smaller carbon footprint, given the way it has aggressively pursued energy efficiency in the ADB’s headquarters. But why measure only the ADB building? What about the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions of the coal plants it has financed and the large hydro projects it has supported? What about the overwhelmingly fossil fuel-biased financing that it has extended throughout Asia of road building, and road building, and even more building of highways and freeways?

There was notably no mention throughout the event of the stalled new ADB Energy Strategy, which was ridiculed by civil society as mediocre and of poor quality. Neither was there mention of the ADB’s still operational Energy Policy, which was approved in 1995, particularly the provisions that have demanded of the ADB and its member countries for the last 13 years the full quantification of all externality costs related to coal and destructive energy projects such as large hydro in order to genuinely level the project playing field.

Stratos Tavoulareas, representing USAID, actually epitomized the way discussions were skewed towards talking about straw men and pipe dreams. According to the official, there were only three options that Asia was facing today. The first was “to stop using coal.” The second was to improve efficiency. And the third was “to use carbon capture and sequestration technology.” But what about dramatically reducing dependence on coal? And what about utilizing decentralized energy systems instead, which prioritize efficiency and renewables and combined heat and power?

In the end, so many questions were left unasked and unanswered. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has monitored the previous ACEFs, and it is disturbing.

The truth is simple and straightforward and it makes the ADB seem so irrelevant.

It is not politics but science that dictates that all countries must contribute in the end — the industrialized nations, arising primarily from their undeniable historic responsibility, including developing countries in the pursuit of real, not rhetorical, sustainable and equitable development — a path of development that avoids the worst excesses of the wealthy nations of today who, once upon a time, thought they could afford to live as if there were no limits — or deadly consequences — to their avarice. #

* Renato Redentor Constantino is the Executive Director of NGO Forum on ADB, an international network of civil society and community organization critically monitoring the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Contact: red@forum-adb.org

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