These are just some of the most eye-catching scenes unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region, where various countries are facing their worst energy crisis in years – and grappling with growing discontent and instability caused by the increase in the cost of living. .
In Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the sense of crisis is palpable. Public anger has already prompted the resignation of a wave of ministers in Colombo and contributed to the downfall of Imran Khan as prime minister in Islamabad.
Elsewhere in the region, signs of unrest may be less obvious but could still have far-reaching consequences. Even in relatively wealthy countries, such as Australia, economic worries are beginning to emerge as consumers feel the pinch of higher energy bills.
But it is the experience of India, where electricity demand has recently hit record highs, that best illustrates why this is a global rather than a regional crisis.
After suffering widespread outages amid record high temperatures, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter announced on May 28 that state-run Coal India will import coal for the first time since 2015.
What is the cause of the problem?
At its root, experts say, the problem lies in a growing mismatch between supply and demand.
But now, as nations begin to put the pandemic behind them, demand for fuel is skyrocketing – and sudden competition is pushing coal, oil and gas prices to record highs.
“Energy demand has rebounded quite quickly because of the coronavirus and faster than supply,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institute’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative.
“So we saw high prices even before Russia invaded Ukraine (but there was) a real energy supply shock. Various measures taken in response to that are really a challenge for the global energy supply.”
“If you’re a country, especially an emerging economy like Sri Lanka that has to buy these commodities, has to buy oil, has to buy natural gas, that’s a real struggle,” Chief Economist Mark Zandi said. at Moody’s Analytics. .
“You pay a lot more for the things you need, but the price of the things you sell haven’t gone up. So you’re spending a lot more money trying to buy the same things to keep your economy going. .”
Poorer countries that are still developing or newly industrialized are simply less able to compete with wealthier rivals – and the more they need to import, the worse their problem will be, said Antoine Halff, deputy principal researcher at the Center on Global at Columbia University. Energy policy.
“So Pakistan definitely has a place there. I think Sri Lanka is going there too,” he said. “They are suffering from prices, but they are also suffering from supplies. They have to pay more for their energy supplies and in some countries like Pakistan they are actually struggling to get energy supplies.”
Canaries in the coal mine
This dynamic is behind the increasingly chaotic scenes unfolding in these countries.
Pakistan has also had to reduce its working week – from six days to five days – although this could only make the situation worse. Its recently introduced six-day week was supposed to improve productivity and stimulate the economy.
Instead, daily power outages lasting hours have plagued the country of 220 million people for at least a month and shopping malls and restaurants in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, have been told to close. early to save fuel.
And any notion that these problems only concern the poorest and least developed countries is dispelled by the experience of Australia – a country which has one of the highest levels in the world of global median wealth per adult. .
Since May, the ‘lucky country’ has been operating without 25% of its coal-based power capacity, partly because of planned maintenance shutdowns but also because supply disruptions and soaring prices have caused shutdowns unforeseen.
Like their counterparts in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Australians are now being urged to save, with Energy Minister Chris Bowen recently asking households in New South Wales, which includes Sydney, not to use electricity for two hours each evening.
A bigger problem ahead
How these countries react may create an even bigger problem than rising prices.
Under public pressure, governments and politicians may be tempted to switch to cheaper and dirtier forms of energy like coal, regardless of the effect on climate change.
And there are signs that it may have already started.
Both measures have been criticized by those who accuse the government of betraying its commitment to renewable energy.
In India, a country of 1.3 billion people that relies on coal for about 70% of its power generation, New Delhi’s decision to increase coal imports is likely to have even more profound effects on the economy. environment.
Scientists say a drastic reduction in coal mining is needed to limit the worst effects of global warming, but that will be difficult to achieve without the buy-in from one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters.
“Any country, whether it’s India, whether it’s Germany, whether it’s the United States, if they double their consumption of fossil fuels, it will eat up the carbon budget. That’s a problem. world,” said Sandeep Pai, research manager for the Energy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While Pai said India’s move may only be a ‘temporary response to the crisis’, if in one or two years countries continue to rely on coal it will significantly affect the war on global warming. .
“If these actions happen, it will eat into India’s already shrinking carbon budget and the 1.5 or 2 degree target will become increasingly difficult,” Pai said, referring to the Accord’s target. of Paris on the climate to maintain the increase in the world average. temperature between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.
As Pai put it: “India’s scale, size and demand means that if it really doubles down on coal then we’re going to have a really serious problem from a climate perspective.”
Iqbal Athas contributed reporting.