An essay in three parts by Dr Stephan Singer. Part 2 is here.
Part 1: The plight of coal
Coal powered plants are the largest individual source of climate pollution. They’re globally responsible for almost 40 per cent of electricity generation, but they also generate more than 70 per cent of CO2 emission in that sector. Coal burning is the main culprit of about 3.5 million people dying annually from air pollution, mainly in cities.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated recently that global coal’s combined external costs and damages to health, nature, water and land (through air pollution and global warming) approximates €3 trillion annually. That’s equivalent to 4 per cent per cent of the global GDP, and it is not accounted for by anyone’s budget.
Instead, it is paid for by all citizens with their health, by ecosystems impacted by climate change, by people living on small island states and coastal areas (who fear flooding from increased sea level rise) and vulnerable communities, who are exposed to lowered food security by enhanced weather extremes. Those global post-tax subsidies for coal are about six times higher than all investments in renewables and energy efficiency combined.
Coal’s social license to operate is eroding speedily. Many conservative and large financial institutions have already agreed on divestments from coal in the last year, such as the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the private banks and insurers AXXA and Allianz.
Simultaneously, the Stowe Global Coal Index, comprising the share prices of almost all coal-mining companies and coal-using power utilities globally, has lost about half of its value in less than two years. And recently the US-based Arch Coal, one of the largest coal mining companies, filed for bankruptcy.
Coal India, the national monopoly and world’s largest coal mining company, is historically plagued with corruption issues, ineffectiveness and various court cases; if not state owned, it would have gone bust long time ago. A few days ago, JP Morgan, one of the largest US banks, followed some peers like Citigroup to stop or curtail any financing of coal activity in OECD countries.
Decline of coal use, particularly in China and the EU in 2014 and 2015, was the key reason for the observed slight decrease in global energy-related CO2 emissions.
Can coal get clean?
But coal is still alive and kicking and far from “terminal decline”, as some say too optimistically.
Consequently, some academics and more educated fossil fuel lobbyists have begun arguing increasingly and particularly after the recent Paris climate agreement, which urges that the world must stay “well below 2 degrees” global warming and pursuing efforts to not exceed 1.5 degrees, that in order to combat climate change effectively, that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is necessary.
CCS refers to the idea of capturing CO2 from the smokestack of any large industrial installation like a coal plant and transporting it via a pipeline to a deep geological layer where it is said to be safe from gassing out for thousands of years.
They argue this is necessary because coal is here to stay for many years, particularly in rapidly industrialising countries with large domestic coal resources like China and India. These countries would have a need for reliable and cheap baseload power for their economic development that renewable energy cannot deliver cost-effectively.
A further political argument is that CCS with coal or with fossil gas, if required, is much easier to implement than a rapid system shift to a much more democratic and participatory renewables-based energy system. This would give the incumbent industries a role in a future decarbonised economy.
Meanwhile, so goes the argument, completely omitting coal speedily as a century-old fuel responsible for global economic wealth involves new and “disruptive” solutions. These disruptions would create technical bottlenecks and political tensions that might cause delay in needed decarbonisation, undermine the security of supply and might simply be hard to accept for many and not only conservative decision makers.
I do not believe that this is a solid, environmentally sound and economic option for a range of reasons for a climate resilient, equitable zero-carbon world that needs to decarbonise as soon as possible, starting with coal. More on this later.
However, in the industrial sector and in combination with other energy- and carbon-saving measures, technology and material change innovations, CCS for process emissions (such as those for producing steel, cement and chemicals) could make sense.
Industrial process CO2 accounts for about 8 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than phasing out steel and cement for the necessary build-up of industrial and other infrastructure, particularly in developing nations, the world needs to phase out harmful carbon pollution from these products because we have no present alternative to these materials.
We have not time to lose on our pathway to comply with a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming threshold, as aspired to in the Paris agreement in December. We need enhanced actions by everyone in all sectors and to leverage the money and policies for doing so.
Rapid scale up of CCS in the industrial sector might be unavoidable, but CCS in the power sector for coal is a harmful avenue to walk because we have plenty of alternatives such as renewables and energy efficiency.
Dr Stephan Singer is WWF International’s director for global energy policy. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Do we need carbon capture and storage to keep using coal? http://bit.ly/1piuOg3 via @climatewwf #CCS
Is #CCS a solution for our climate? @climatewwf takes a look at the state of coal: http://bit.ly/1piuOg3
Coal power plants are the largest individual source of climate pollution. But there are alternatives: http://bit.ly/1piuOg3 #CCS