In Central Asia’s Brutal Winter, Fossil Fuels Trump Climate Politics

Central Asian countries are pragmatic about future energy needs, having decided to choose energy security over climate virtue signaling.
In Central Asia’s Brutal Winter, Fossil Fuels Trump Climate Politics
Workers walk as oil pumps are seen in the background in the Uzen oil and gas field in the Mangistau Region of Kazakhstan, on Nov.13, 2021. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)
Vijay Jayaraj

Globally, winter cold kills more people than summer heat, and winter in Central Asia is no gentle visitor. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees C (minus 40 degrees F), transforming bustling cities into frozen landscapes and testing the limits of human endurance.

The winter struggle is especially intense in rural areas, where shelter and other infrastructure are often rudimentary. Wood and coal have long been used for heat.

For example, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan—three Central Asian countries seldom mentioned in the media—rely heavily on abundant coal reserves for heat and energy.

However, this economical energy source, along with natural gas and oil, has come under attack by international political institutions, such as the European Union and United Nations, and leftist politicians and funding entities. Armed with the pseudoscience of climate change, fearmongering opportunists are seeking to ban the fuels that are a lifeline for the people of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan generate more than 95 percent of their electricity from gas, oil, and coal. Both countries are pragmatic about future energy needs, having decided to choose energy security over climate virtue signaling.

Uzbekistan is set to increase coal production by 22 percent and is conducting geological exploration across 31,000 square kilometers of new sites. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is increasing oil production and plans to increase exports to Eastern Europe.

Kyrgyzstan has more than 33 percent of its population living in poverty, making it significantly poorer than Uzbekistan (17 percent in poverty) to the west and Kazakhstan (5 percent) to the north. Half of Kyrgyzstan depends on traditional coal-fired stoves for cooking, and nearly all citizens depend on solid fuels such as wood, coal, and rubber for winter heating.

Raw coal prices have risen so sharply that nonprofits are now giving out free coal for families in Kyrgyzstan to stay warm. In 2021, people queued for hours in freezing weather to receive coal handouts from the government.

“In a cold winter, we burn about 5-6 [metric] tonnes,” a Kyrgyz housewife told Reuters at the time. “It is expensive for us to buy coal at 5,500 soms [$62 a tonne]. Therefore, I stand in line for three-four hours. And what are we supposed to do, freeze?”

More than 90 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. Though hydropower is a valuable resource, such high dependency on it increases the risk of power shortages in winter, which is one of the drier seasons in this relatively arid country. Kyrgyzstan supplements winter energy supplies with imported electricity from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

The most obvious solution to filling its energy needs is Kyrgyzstan’s coal reserves. Undeterred by the political noise of climate change, Kyrgyzstan is embarking on an ambitious program to increase coal production with advanced technology and by privatizing mines.

Mining has increased by around 30 percent during the past 15 years. Most of the mined coal is brown coal, or lignite, an inferior fuel that’s mostly exported. The demand for higher-quality coal is met predominantly by imports.

To bolster the movement of electricity imports and exports, the country is investing in the 500‑kilovolt Datka-Khodjent-Sangtuda power transmission line connecting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There’s also a long-term partnership with Gazprom to improve gas supply in the country.

In addition to withstanding the annual assault of winter, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan all have interests in overall security and economic development that make the exploitation of natural resources such as fossil fuels all the more important. Climate politics has no place in the frigid expanses of Central Asia.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Vijay Jayaraj is a research associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK, and resides in India.
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