If the coal industry really cared about helping poor countries, it would shut itself down

Coal companies are in complete denial — the developing world doesn't need more pollution or expensive new grids, but renewable energy sources

Camilla Toulmin
Monday 17 November 2014 13:51 GMT
The power plant "Neurath" run by coal from the brown coal open cast mine Garzweiler is pictured in Rommerskirchen, western Germany
The power plant "Neurath" run by coal from the brown coal open cast mine Garzweiler is pictured in Rommerskirchen, western Germany

The coal industry is in trouble. And like a shipwreck survivor, it is flailing about desperately trying to find a lifeline.

The latest attempt at salvation comes in the form of a specious campaign aiming to persuade us that the poor people of this world need coal in order to develop. Blame is laid at the door of rich countries for forcing the poor away from coal. Organisations such as IIED, which exist to support the poor in their drive to develop, are accused of being complicit in this conspiracy to deprive. It has even been argued that restricting coal use in developing countries will kill people.

This is a half-baked narrative at best. But it is gaining traction – not least in Australia, which last weekend hosted the G20 summit and whose government is betting the national economy on expanding its own coal industry.

Tony Abbott’s government did not put climate change on the agenda until the Americans told them this was unacceptable. Brisbane airport banned an advertisement promoting awareness about climate change as being “too political”, while allowing adverts from fossil fuel companies to proliferate.

Looming over everything was a campaign, funded by Peabody Coal and developed by the PR company Burston Marsteller, called Advanced Energy for Life, which urged leaders to fight energy poverty by backing "clean coal".

Peabody is quite correct to say that “half the world’s population – some 3.5bn people – lacks adequate access to electricity. In developing countries, far too many people live without light or heat for their homes or access to life-saving medical technologies.” In the 21st Century, it is a scandal.

But in promoting "clean coal" as the solution, the industry shows how out of touch it is with the desires of developing nations, the science of climate change and the changing economics of energy.

Coal is on a slow path to elimination. China, which uses half of the world total, has halved imports in the last two months and is on course to see overall coal consumption peak this year. Most European countries are on course to stop using coal to generate electricity. US consumption has fallen because of increasing renewables and shale gas, a process that President Obama plans to accelerate with regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coal burning will continue to rise in India and some other developing nations. But overall, its outlook is bleak. Peabody’s share price is trading at its lowest level for a decade.

One of the reasons for coal’s progressive demise is the desire of virtually all governments to curb climate change. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that all fossil fuel use without carbon capture and storage has to end by 2100 at the very latest in order to stand a reasonable chance of meeting the internationally-agreed target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. It’s obviously sensible to conclude that the most polluting fuel – coal – should disappear first.

Now recall that the majority of developing countries argued for the tougher global warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. So continuing fossil fuel until anywhere near 2100 is not in their professed interest.

The other part of the picture concerns the realities of poor regions – most evidently, sub-Saharan Africa – and of electricity systems. In most poor countries, transmission is a bigger problem than generation. Hundreds of millions live without grid access. Those who are connected often find supplies unreliable and expensive.

So, a choice has to be made on whether to invest in expanding national grids, often against huge logistical constraints, or using localised generation. Already, there are countless examples in Africa of community-scale renewables projects that offer both cheaper and more reliable electricity supplies than an expanded grid.

With the costs of solar power tumbling, and with active research into expanding hydropower and geothermal generation, there simply is no case for coal.

The argument that poor countries need coal for development and that westerners are trying to stop them is a smokescreen from a dying industry. It takes us further away from the fair world we must aspire towards if we are to truly tackle climate change and energy security in an equitable manner.

If coal companies and their political backers really had the needs of the developing world at heart, they would be subsidising renewables, both community- and industrial-scale, along with high-quality transmission infrastructure.

And they would be advocating the immediate end of coal burning in rich countries. Overall limits on fossil fuel emissions are set by the science of climate change. But politics decides how emissions are divided up. The faster coal use is phased out in developed nations, the longer developing ones have to continue using it.

Life does indeed need advanced energy. But “clean coal” that requires non-existent infrastructure, locks in import dependency for decades, and continues to cause climate change is not advanced energy. It is a fossil; and the smokescreen fools no-one.

Dr Camilla Toulmin is Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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