As a journalist, I  started to have an interest and cover energy issues in Cambodia in 2017. But what I have mostly heard is the debacle in the government’s commitment to energy transition, which I initially thought was a common issue each least developed country would face at some point due to its limited alternative choices. But this is not always the case. As one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, Cambodia has been unusually and increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, specifically on coal power sources, in spite of the availability of alternative energy paths.

As can be seen, attention on the most polluting coal-fired power plants has risen, and noticeably, more financial investments in coal have poured in from Cambodia’s close ally China— some of which are approved as a flagship project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

For instance, a power station construction project, which includes two 350-megawatt coal-fired power plants, officially broke ground at Sihanoukville Port on Aug. 18, 2020 and is funded by Cambodia International Investment and Development Group (CIIDG) in partnership with China Huadian Hong Kong (CHDHK). 

The Ministry of Mines and Energy’s 2020 report indicated that the country had the capacity to generate up to 2916 MW—74.83% of its total energy consumption. Among it, coal accounts for around 23%. However, it can be foreseeable that in order to cope with potential electricity shortage, under its energy mix policy, the country will focus more on coal power and renewable energy. According to GlobalData, out of its 83% new generation capacity to be constructed between 2020 to 2030, 56% will be from coal power sources. 

Cambodia’s embrace of coal power as an energy source while it lessens its dependency on hydropower has been carried out against the backdrop of the 2019 blackouts and public backlash due to severe droughts driven by the climate crisis. In addition to its reduced cost, coal also appears to be more practical and financially viable for a least developed country’s government which struggles to balance between economic growth and environmental costs.  

Cambodia does not only seek to invest in coal power, but it is also among the few nations bringing back heavy fuel oil (HFO) power plants which have been widely condemned for the astronomical levels of pollution they generate. As planned, new 400-megawatt HFO plant in Kandal Province has been completed despite the warnings of experts that pollution can reach Phnom Penh.

Evidently, the country’s leadership is disinclined to turn away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, in spite of the environmental and public health implications that will arise from the pollution. As countries around the world attempt to phase out coal, Cambodia is yet to fully embrace the transition towards clean energy, leaving the impacts of climate crisis and pollution relatively unabated.

Environment, health and economic costs

Speaking of the climate crisis, we know, through scientific consensus, that coal-fired power is one of the most prominent contributors to this crisis we now face. Cambodia now already sees that the future is bleak, and there’s yet more bad news to come if it fails to recognize its actions. Our people have already felt the impacts of the climate crisis with more extreme and frequent climate events such as heatwaves, recurrent and prolonged droughts as well as flash flooding taking place throughout the country.

One key example is the drought that ravaged some parts of the country during last year’s rainy season, leaving several thousands of hectares of rice paddy ruined. It was then followed by severe flash floods which seriously damaged up to 600 rural roads and other infrastructure while claiming at least 44 people and displacing almost 50,000 across the country.

Natural crises such as these will only become more frequent and intense as the effects of the climate crisis set deeper, which may stand to put the nation’s food security at grave risk. Short on unwavering policy alignment with the 2015 Paris Accords, a recalculation and recalibration of policies is surely necessary for Cambodia now as the worst is yet to come.

Literally, if more coal power plants are to be approved, it means we are going to add more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And it unquestionably will become increasingly difficult to revert back to the trend towards carbon neutrality. According to Our World in Data, the country released up to 143 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019— and this amount is only from the use of fossil fuels and cement production while land use change is not included. 

 While the worst may be yet to come, it is not far away and will sooner or later affect current generations— not just future ones— if we continue to linger in this state of political apathy. We cannot take the future for granted when it comes to the climate crisis.

Also, people should forget that coal is the main driving force of air pollution, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO), kills up to seven million people annually.  Scientifically proven, burning coal for power generation typically releases “a number of airborne toxins and pollutants including mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals” into the air. This results in a wide range of health problems from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death.

In addition, the country’s expansion of energy production through coal will not only lead to potential natural disasters and public health issues— its embrace of clean energy will also be economically risky. For instance, Cambodia could face an outflow of capital as companies relocate to neighboring countries where clean energy is actively promoted. Already, last August, some brand manufacturing companies including the Swedish multinational clothing-retail company H&M, Puma SE, Adidas AG and Nike Inc protested the government’s move to expand coal-generated energy, warning that it could trigger so-called capital flight. 

Clean Energy is Its Own Reward

Obviously, ascertaining the problem is the first step towards addressing it, but it is not the last step. While I myself am no expert in energy, I believe in the people—the overwhelming majority of whom advocate for clean energy such as wind, biomass and solar power for the preservation of our future. 

Coal and fossil fuels must become part of Cambodia’s past—and quickly—if there is to be a future. A swift transition of energy sources could see our nation contribute to the global healing of our shared planet.

It is undeniable that conducting a complete overhaul of our current energy sources and transitioning into a greener future is far more complex than my words have elucidated. It requires a great deal of effort and commitment to make that happen, along with practical, realistic as well as innovative mechanisms to pull it off. This is not the time for shiny promises that are unfulfillable within the context of Cambodia— we need a guarantee of viability if we wish to harness the results.

I agree that energy security is a part of the development conundrum, but Cambodia’s energy policymakers also have to adhere to a principle of responsible public policy and accountable governance. Therefore, they should place people’s concern and safety at the heart of the decision-making process.

From now on, their attention should be on drastic changes that help us reach the  goals of a clean energy transition and decarbonization of greenhouse gas emissions—it is becoming a more critical matter with each passing day. We do not have much time left to experiment. Going green and getting clean is already affordable; clean energy, specifically solar power, holds so much potential in Cambodia.

Globally, clean energy has grown at its fastest pace, becoming more affordable as costs have continued to decline over the past decade due to technological advancement, supply chain competitiveness as well as the reduction in production costs.

Taking into consideration both the economic and public health devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, clean energy will invariably be a part of our green recovery due to the jobs and economic opportunities it can provide. According to UNDP, clean energy can support the local economy through job creation and offer affordable energy that would significantly benefit small and medium businesses—all being the backbone of the country’s engine for growth. 

I am happy to witness that there has been a significant increase in investments in solar energy over the past few years. More solar farm constructions—including a Chinese-funded 60-megawatt solar farm in Battambang Province and 30-megawatt solar power station in Banteay Meanchey Province—coupled with a rare decision by the government to halt dam construction for 10 years offers hope that clean energy can and will flourish in Cambodia. 

But much more work needs to be done if we want to revolutionize our energy system, particularly in terms of policy and awareness.

A promotion campaign should be made to increase knowledge on the importance of energy and to inspire and embolden Cambodians to switch to solar or other types of clean energy. Energy experts agree that more capital should also be allocated to research, innovation and capacity building in clean energy. Of course, education remains and will be the long-lasting solution to help shape perceptions and the necessary behavioral changes that leads to widespread consumption and proliferation of renewable energy.

The government’s biggest challenge is fortifying energy policy, so it should incentivize renewable energy investments while applying punitive restrictions on those still living in the past. Thailand, by way of example, has done much to incentivize both the private sector and people to take part in the process—results have been positive in many aspects. 

If we can learn from other countries’ successes, we might be able to quickly prepare ourselves for a better future once and for all.

Cambodia stands to gain from more than just solar energy. Other sources of green energy are now available. Prominent energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia Han Phoumin recently told me that the country should look into the possibility of utilizing green hydrogen or renewable hydrogen, pointing out that this has more potential in the country and can be an enabler for scaling up the use of renewables. 

He added that the breakthrough in technologies of smart grid, battery storage and hydrogen has already become a great help for a developing country like Cambodia to further introduce clean and renewable energy in its energy sector.

I strongly concur that we need to take advantage of advanced technology to its maximum potential if we really aim to expedite the transition. Technological transfer is vital in abetting Cambodia to build much-needed clean energy infrastructure. This can be accomplished by forging more partnerships with development partners and donor countries whose clean power is standardized and successful.

It is also essential that our policymakers begin distancing ourselves from any detrimental source of energy like coal. The government must stop greenlighting more coal power plants, but instead redirect new investments or encourage foreign or domestic investors to support clean energy. 

At the end of the day, none of these ideas can become reality without political commitment. This needs a change in mindset or an alteration in our confidence in clean energy and a strong determination to make it happen. Well-designed energy policy is the only real tool that can respond to the urgency that is now upon us and Cambodia’s future hinges in the balance—will it be a pay-off for the nation or a national price to pay? Only those in charge can make that choice.

Sao Phal Niseiy is currently Editor in Chief of Cambodianess news in Cambodia. He covers foreign affairs and the climate crisis.