Getting to Grips with the Coal Reality Underneath the COP21 Hullabaloo!
Beneath the Hype of the Paris Meeting How Far Can the Greatest Driver of C02 Emissions Really Be Tamed?
As world leaders meet in Paris for the latest COP meeting there is a huge public and media expectation for decisive action on climate change. No doubt there will be some sort of deal, the rhetoric will be heavy with declarations that the planet will be saved (or rather in fact that humanity on the planet will be saved, the planet will be able to look after itself). However, there is a real danger than amongst all the COP hullabaloo the reality of coal demand in the global economy will sink any deal made in Paris.
It is easy to knock coal. It is the principal generator of C02 emissions. Since 2000 alone it has generated three-fifths of all C02 emissions. The historical mass of C02 emissions in the atmosphere is overwhelmingly coal generated. In addition to the damage to the atmosphere is the massive damage to human health from respiratory diseases in Chinese cities contributing to over 2 million deaths a year to the impact of inorganic mercury. When the US Environmental Protection Agency tightened pollution standards reduced the amount of inorganic mercury produced from US coal fired power stations, the EPA estimates were that between 7000 and 17,000 American lives would be saved every year.
However, in order to understand our reliance on coal and how difficult it is to eradicate from the global economy it is important to understand its origins. Wright in his great masterwork Energy and the Industrial Revolution underscores the reality: that our entire industrial civilisation was built upon and still largely rests upon coal production and consumption. Until very recently it was coal, and coal alone which permitted economic growth to escape the fixed limitations of land, capital and labour where almost all energy resources were captured by limited and inefficient photosynthesis. Coal allowed Great Britain first and the later the rest of Europe and the United States access to almost unlimited energy resources to escape the physical constraints of photosynthesis which led to massive growth in technological development, economic prosperity and population.
Despite the development of additional fossil fuel resources from gas and oil; the development of nuclear and renewables, coal remains tremendously attractive. Coal is available in abundance, the cheapest fuel available and most coal resources are domestic (only 17% of coal production is internationally traded) providing energy security advantages.
Just as coal fuelled the economic development of Europe and the US it is now doing the same for China, India and South-East Asia. In its latest Medium Term Outlook for coal the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that coal consumption will grow 2.3% a year to 2020 with 60% of the growth being Chinese. China now imports more seaborne coal than the rest of the world combined. It is true that China has taken steps to reduce consumption and has invested heavily in renewables, however the growing Chinese middle class and their demand for energy resources continue to push up demand. Equally demand for cheap energy from India to drive the country out of poverty and Japan to replace its nuclear power fleet will provide additional drivers of global coal consumption.
The IEA projection is that if coal consumption continues on this scale then by as early as 2018 the world will be consuming approximately 9 billion tonnes of coal annually. Beyond this rate of consumption the world heads in the direction of a 4C increase in global temperatures, not the 2C increase which is the aim of the Paris meeting.
The danger of COP21 is that there is great political drama, tremendous political rhetoric and lots of solemn pledges. Everyone goes home, leaves their promises in Paris and continue to burn coal.
If COP21 is going to mean anything it has fundamentally has to get to grips with the coal reality of global energy markets. That coal reality is that coal is vital for developing countries, and is not easily replaceable. There are a number of measures that the international community could adopt. For instance, one observation of the IEA was that across Latin America and South-East Asia there is a trend to build new coal fired power stations using old coal fired power station designs that are very inefficient and burn more C02. Just deploying new more efficient coal fired power station across emerging economies would cut C02 emissions by as much as deployment of all Europe’s wind power stations.
More fundamentally, as coal is not going to go away any time soon it is vital for more research and development funds to be devoted to carbon capture and sequestration. Without substantial CCS research funding, and then follow up experimental plants that can retrofit CCS technology onto existing coal fired plants it is doubtful that C02 emissions can be cut on the scale required. The technological is immense both for capture as well as developing safe and cheap ways to store or commercialise C02. However, unless the challenge of CCS is met following COP21 it is difficult to see how the growth of C02 emissions will be slowed down and then reversed.
All the agreements and rhetoric in Paris will be meaningless if emerging market countries continue to naturally head for the cheapest source of energy to improve the lives of their people. COP21 needs to deliver a means to ensure that emerging countries can continue to ensure their countries and people prosper while providing the means and measures to effective reduce C02 emissions.
Professor Alan Riley, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council.