The Challenges of Dirty Fuel
By Tim Boersma and Stacy D. VanDeveer
On December 12, 2015, 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, the most ambitious climate change pact to date. The document lays out a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, among other climate-related initiatives. Participating countries must now find ways to translate those ambitions into policy, and answer important questions about financing, transparency and accountability, national implementation, and accelerated emissions reduction goals, to name but a few. But one issue looms large: coal.
Coal-fired electricity is responsible for producing 40 percent of the world’s power and about 70 percent of its steel. The coal industry employs millions worldwide and provides billions of people with electricity. Analysts estimate that the world has hundreds of years of coal reserves in the ground, at current consumption levels. Its abundance, low price, and global availability make it a difficult fuel source to give up. But despite coal’s advantages, it poses significant environmental and health risks. Ten percent of coal consists of ash, which contains radioactive and toxic elements. It is responsible for over $50 billion in medical costs annually in the European Union alone. The environmental consequences of coal use, such as water contamination and habitat destruction, are common. Burning coal adds millions of tons of dangerous particulates and greenhouse gases, including carbon, to the atmosphere.
State and societies around the world rely on coal, even though many of its dangers have been known for decades. If the Paris Agreement is to succeed, global leaders must address the reasons why many countries—particularly in the developing world—still rely on coal. Better yet, they must find new ways to provide coal-reliant countries with affordable, alternative energy, and invest in new technologies that could help mitigate coal’s negative consequences.
COAL ACROSS THE WORLD
Globally, coal production and consumption has risen almost continuously for more than 200 years. The International Energy Agency has estimated that the world burned approximately 7,876 million tons of coal in 2013, adding over 14.8 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere. But global coal statistics do not tell us much about markets and trends. In fact, coal usage varies enormously around the world, with some regions transitioning away from the resource as others have increasingly embraced it.
For example, stringent environmental, health, and safety policies in the United States have put increasing pressure on the coal industry. Well-funded environmental groups have succeeded in closing coal-fired power plants, and many states on the country’s west coast and in its northeast have aimed to create a coal-free power grid. Yet market forces have turned out to be the nail in U.S. coal’s coffin. The rise of natural gas in the United States has gave the country’s electricity producers an incentive to shift away from coal. In fact, U.S. coal consumption declined from a billion tons in 2008, to roughly 850 million tons by 2013. This year, analysts suggest that coal will fuel only 32 percent of all U.S. electricity, and natural gas will become the country’s leading electricity source for the first time. As a result of low prices, low returns, and political controversy, investors have shied away from coal, which has caused major coal companies to struggle to stay afloat. Of all announced new electricity generation capacity in the United States, not a single megawatt is coal-fired. Although change is happening, it will likely be decades before coal is no longer an important fuel source in the U.S. economy. Canada’s coal sector faces similar pressures: weak demand from Asia, public opposition to the construction of new export facilities, domestic environmental legislation, and the shale boom have all taken their toll.
In Europe, stringent air quality controls and climate change regulations have cut the use of coal dramatically in Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. But the EU emissions trading scheme, which relies on carbon offsets and carbon dioxide caps, has proven disappointing. In fact, most European countries still lack an economically competitive and readily available alternative to coal. Plus, the coal industry still has political power in capitals like Berlin and Warsaw, which lowers the European common denominator for energy policy, as well as its policies that fight climate change.
In Asia, both Japan and South Korea are set to expand their use of coal despite signing the Paris Agreement. After the Fukushima disaster, Japan has implemented ambitious renewables and energy efficiency policies, but those cannot take the place of its nuclear energy production on their own. These countries are entirely import dependent, which makes natural gas prices high. This, in turn, makes natural gas a less likely fuel source as the countries transition to greener electricity. In this context, high-efficiency coal plants appear to be a viable alternative, especially as nuclear power remains highly controversial.
And outside of advanced economies, coal often plays the role it once played in Europe and North America. For over a decade, China was the main engine of global coal consumption, driving booms in coal mining and shipping. China’s domestic coal production skyrocketed, and other countries, such as Australia, experienced coal booms to keep pace with Chinese demand. Although China produced and consumed almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined in 2014, it seems that the country’s consumption has peaked. But China will still rely heavily on coal-fired electricity for decades. The country remains a key player in steel production, and millions of its citizens continue to work in the mining industry, despite recent layoffs.
South Asian countries continue to invest heavily in new coal-fired electricity plants and industrial projects. India may appreciate the risks of climate change, but its chief concern is delivering low-cost power to 350 million of its citizens who lack electricity. Coal is set to play a prominent role in meeting such goals. Countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have followed suit as they search for low-cost electricity to power their countries.
Different strategies apply in different parts of the world when it comes to eradicating coal, despite the global agreement in Paris. Just as there is not a global energy grid, there is also no single, global transition to lower-carbon energy. Although some countries are transitioning away from coal, others continue to transition toward it.
Second, pragmatism and persistence—rather than ideological purity—remain key values as countries transition towards low-carbon economies. Natural gas provides North America with a backup fuel as it transitions to green energy. Without major bulk terminals on the west coast, western U.S. coal producers will not find new markets for their products overseas. And in Europe, policymakers will have to make good on long-promised and long-delayed changes to energy policy and infrastructure. If Germany and other EU states are to achieve promised clean energy transitions, coal production must be scaled back substantially across the continent. European leaders must also build an “Energy Union” that will accelerate the flow of cross-border electricity, if they are to achieve the Paris Accord’s climate change goals. Europe must also reform its existing carbon pricing mechanisms. And across China, Europe, and North America, workers will have to be re-educated for new job opportunities as the coal market dries up.
But for now, coal still keeps the light on around the world. It powers new, high-tech economies, as well as a huge share of traditional manufacturing. If hundreds of millions of Africans and Asians are to gain access to electricity, new coal-fired power plants will have to come online in the years ahead. As coal continues to play a prominent role in industrial processes like steel and cement making, technological investments are required to limit its consequences.
To tackle these challenges, coal advocates, as well as some climate experts, suggest that more countries must invest in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research. But such investments are lagging, and the world would require several dozen CCS projects in order to make the technology commercially viable in the long term.
If the Paris Accord is to succeed, the earth’s atmosphere cannot remain a free dump for billions of tons of pollution every year. In fact, virtually every all greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. Countries can impose taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, and regulation to make this happen. Governments will have to design unique strategies that are custom fit to their countries, and, in some cases, find opportunities with their neighbors as well. For example, some private and public institutions have chosen to stop financing coal-fired projects, and the Obama administration has indicated it will not give out new leases for coal mining on federal land. Others will choose to build more coal-fired plants until the alternatives are cheaper, or until someone pays them not to.
Globally, coal may indeed be at the beginning of the end. But the energy transition is not strictly global. It is also national, regional, and local. Coal remains economically competitive—attractive even—in many parts of the world. Some countries will wage wars on coal, which will be as much economic and financial as they are political. But some countries, like India, will host coal booms regardless of the consequences. After Paris, there is no point in ignoring coal. It will be powering the world—and the world’s debates—for decades to come.
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