What will happen to Sri Lanka when the world runs out of coal?

‘Energy: The strength and vitality required for sustained mental and physical activity.’

Oxford English Dictionary


The whirring computers, mobile phones and televisions that form a network of connections between human beings; the bulbs that light up houses, the fans that cool the air, the cars whizzing by on the road, the lush green paddy fields, the monsoon winds blowing in the rainy season and even the functioning of our own bodies – although we take it for granted - are powered entirely by this constantly buzzing phenomenon we have termed ‘energy’.  The reality is that if we are cut off from this source of vitality we will cease to exist.


Due to the unprecedented rise in the human population, the increasing demand for goods and services combined with the prevailing environmental crisis, the world is heading towards a catastrophe. Sources used by the International Energy Authority have revealed that there are 1038 billion tonnes of coal reserves left in the world: an equivalent of 130 years of global coal output. Meanwhile, the world Energy Council estimates an equivalent of 109 years of coal output.[i] The case in point: whether it is 50 years down the road or a 100, the world will eventually run out of the major fossil fuels that have powered it thus far – oil, gas and coal.


The concept of ‘going green’ - a movement that encourages people to make environmentally friendly choices in their everyday life - has slowly crept in as a result. Due to the severity of the energy crisis, this idea has pushed governments to look for relatively cleaner energy sources as opposed to relying on fossil-based energy.  For this reason the harnessing of energy through renewable sources such as the sun, winds, water and wave power are being explored extensively.



It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Unfortunately, Sri Lanka seems to be backtracking. By the year 2020, the aim is to reduce our dependency on oil from 32% to 6%. Although this appears to be a positive move, it is rendered futile because the strategy simultaneously aims to shift our dependency on to coal. By the year 2032, 80% of Sri Lanka’s energy mix will be made up of this ‘cheaper’ alternative.[ii] Yet, not only is coal a finite resource, burning coal is the leading cause of smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution. Coal power plants emit high levels of carbon dioxide and this is one of the primary causes for global warming. It is safe to say then that this strategy completely defeats the purpose of ‘going green.’


Despite this, the idea of using clean energy sources does prevail to an extent. The Mahinda Chintana promises to develop Dendro energy projects in the dry zone as an industry, and the aim is to use solar power and wind power to provide electricity to rural areas where grid networks are not feasible.[iii] More significantly, it has set a target to increase the country’s Non- Conventional Renewable Energy (NCRE) to 20% by 2020. Yet due to ill-advised strategic planning; investments being misdirected, corruption; poor leadership and organization alongside various internal and external forces coming in to play, many of these policies have not been implemented. Although Sri Lanka may hit the smaller targets along the way, the lingering problem is that we do not have a long term, overall stance for renewables beyond 2020.


Asoka Abeygunawardena, executive director of the Sri Lanka Energy Forum, points out that if we act now it is possible to avert a potential disaster. According to him we should be burning fossil fuels (investing in coal) now to build a foundation for the future: that is to set up more NCRE power plants. At this moment however, we seem to be headed down the wrong track and we are in fact intent on shifting our dependency over to coal entirely without any clear goal of how to develop our renewable energy sources beyond 2020. He stresses that we should think globally in the context of global warming and finite resources, and act locally to build up our stand for the future[iv]. He emphasizes the notion that although this may be an expensive endeavor in the short run, in the long run it will prove to be more sustainable and cost efficient.


While we continue to depend on the convenience of our faulty oil and coal power plants, countries across the globe are making massive inroads towards developing renewable sustainable energy sources.They are doing this with sometimes larger populations and far less natural resources than what Sri Lanka has. In recent times for instance, Denmark and Germany have experienced a peak in electricity generation through wind and solar power. They have managed to cover much of their countries' need through this and have set the trend for renewable energy systems that do not cost the Earth.[v]

Denmark has ambitious energy goals: by 2050, the country plans to meet 100 percent of its energy requirements with renewables, creating more jobs, increasing exports and reducing its energy dependence. Denmark’s Minister for Energy expressed that he was "100% sure not only that other countries could do it, but that they will do it, simply because of the development of the markets. Each will have to find their solutions, but will it happen? Yes." [vi]

If the willpower to achieve these goals is in place along with an exemplary governance structure –driven by the best interests of the country and its people- any obstacle can be overcome. Instead of investing in the more expensive infrastructure that may be required to generate NCRE, Sri Lanka has taken the easy way out by opting for coal. Yet, we must ask ourselves for how much longer can we rely on such a strategy?

Sri Lanka is a tropical island blessed with an abundance of natural resources – wind and wave power, rainfall, rivers, sunlight. We have the resources and the potential to reap the benefitsof renewable energy and as the Danish Minister of Energy stated, we can develop our own strategy and create our own energy mix instead of following the path taken by ‘historical polluters’ before us.

Effective generation of public awareness about available energy sources could go a long way to developing creative solutions for the problem. For instance, this could foster steps to conserve energy and increase efficiency at the grassroots (in our homes); it could encourage the production of energy using solar panels at domestic level on a wider scale; it may serve towards initiating energy saving and storage schemes; and pave the way for larger numbers of individuals and organizations to incorporate eco friendly methods into their lifestyles. If such collective effort is taken by the general public – for both domestic and industrial energy use - the bigger vision of shifting from coal to renewable energy will become more of a reality.

Germany’s energy collectives mirror the perfect example of this. Their shift to clean energy has been propelled by the action of home owners, small and medium-sized businesses, and farmers. Nearly three quarters of their renewable energy production has been invested in by small private investors. The state owns none of it. An even more intriguing trend is the growing body of citizen led cooperatives that bundle their resources to invest in either a local Photovoltaic farm or a wind power facility[vii]. Their efforts have made it possible for Germany to achieve the dream of powering their country through renewable energy.

Today, science and technology has allowed us to travel off the beaten path. The possibilities are numerous and the innovative solutions we could come up with so diverse, if only we were to seek them out. Engaging in research to develop such novel methods suited to our own environment will undoubtedly help Sri Lanka forge ahead.

Perhaps, we ought to change the way we look at the problem and embrace the myriad of options that are out there. Instead of looking at the energy debate negatively we could seize this opportunity to turn the tables around. By developing our own solar and wind power plants rapidly we may be able to sell energy to other countries in the future: thus we could go from being importers of energy to exporters.

If we fail to take the initiative now when these options are within our grasp -when the world runs out of coal we will be left reeling.

At present we believe that the initial expenditure of investing in renewable resources is daunting and the logical solution should be to turn to the cheaper alternative. We think that our time has arrived to pollute the environment because the ‘developed’ countries had their opportunity before us. We are hesitant to take risks and invest in long term solutions because of the uncertainty that comes with it.

Yet, it is critical that we invest now for the future. That we have a long term cost effective plan in place along with the appropriate infrastructure to ensure that we are prepared when the world eventually runs out of fossil fuels.

For more information visit:


[i] World Coal Association: Coal Statistics, 2014. Online. Accessed June 2014.


[ii]Scribd, 2014. Online. Towards Sustainable Energy in the Power Sector. Accessed June 2014. http://www.scribd.com/doc/211559046/Towards-Sustainable-Energy-in-the-Power-Sector-Edit

[iii] Mahinda Chintana: Towards a New Sri Lanka. Online. Accessed June 2014 http://www.president.gov.lk/pdfs/MahindaChinthanaEnglish.pdf

[iv] Abeygunawardena, Asoka. Towards sustainable development in the power sector. Online. Accessed June 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsznagiGaVg

[v]Permaculture Magazine: Renewable Energy Generation Hits All Time Highs in Denmark and Germany, 2013. Online. Accessed May 2014.


[vi]Denmark Leads the Charge in Renewable Energy. Online. Accessed May 2014 http://www.dw.de/denmark-leads-the-charge-in-renewable-energy/a-17603695

[vii]Hockenos, Paul, 2012. Germany's Unlikely Renewable Energy Revolutionaries. Online. Accessed May 2014.


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