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Beware Of Persistent Coal Use

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By Jaya Ramachandran & Anna Rutkowski
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN | WARSAW (IDN) - Coal currently provides 40 percent of the world’s electricity and has been the fastest-growing global energy source since the year 2000, reports the International Energy Agency (IEA). Its most recent World Energy Outlook finds that while renewables and natural gas generation will grow rapidly, coal is still projected to be the dominant source of electricity through 2035.

As the UN climate change conference COP 19 entered second week on November 18, Greenpeace unfurled a banner on the front of Poland’s Ministry of Economy, protesting against the World Coal Association’s International Coal and Climate Summit taking place inside. The banner read: “Who Rules Poland? Coal Industry or the People?”

Below the banner, activists held a ‘People Before Coal’ rally, bloating a huge set of pink lungs and calling for an immediate phase-out of coal plants worldwide in order to safeguard public health, ecosystems and the global climate.

The significance of the rally is underlined by the fact that, according to IEA, Poland was the world's ninth-biggest coal producer in 2012 and the tenth biggest producer of electricity from coal and peat. The Warsaw climate change conference is purported to find a new, global deal by 2015 on curbing climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

World Resources Institute (WRI) experts Kelly Levin and Ailun Yang say in a blog post: that Warsaw hosting international climate negotiations and a global conference on coal is “a troubling juxtaposition” because “coal contributes to 43 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major driver of climate change.”

In fact, a new statement released by leading scientists suggests that nearly three-quarters of fossil fuel reserves – especially coal – must remain unused if the world is to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the WRI blog post says. “In other words, limiting sea level rise, extreme weather events, heat waves, and other climate impacts requires staying within world’s “carbon budget”, which doesn’t include unabated coal use.”

The blog post points out that the he statement comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), which found that emissions related to human activities must not exceed 1 trillion tonnes C (1000 PgC) if we are to have a likely chance of limiting warming to 2°C. The world has already used up more than half of this “carbon budget,” and under a carbon intensive trajectory1, is on track to exceed it in about three decades, says the statement.

“Staying within our carbon budget also means living within a ‘fossil fuel budget’,” the blog post notes, adding: “According to the IPCC, limiting warming to 2 degrees C requires capping fossil fuel emissions at 270 PgC for the period between 2012 and 21002. Yet the new scientific statement says that CO2 emissions associated with reserves of coal, oil, and gas are 3,863 GtCO2, or 1,053 PgC. Therefore, burning through only 26 percent of these reserves would break the carbon budget, meaning roughly 74 percent of fossil fuels would need to remain unused to limit warming to 2 degrees C.”

WRI experts add: “Carbon dioxide emissions associated with burning coal are the greatest of any fossil fuel, and coal has the highest carbon content among all unburned fossil fuel reserves. Data from the scientific statement shows that we would need more than two fossil fuel budgets for the emissions associated with coal reserves alone, leaving no budget for continued use of oil or natural gas.”

Despite these known risks, coal remains a dominant energy source. WRI’s Global Coal Risk Assessment found that there are nearly 1,200 new coal-fired power plants slated for development worldwide. More than three-quarters of these plants are proposed in India and China, nations already struggling with air quality and environmental issues associated with coal emissions, and coal remains an existing source in many countries, informs the blog post.

Making coal part of the solution

It is not surprising, therefore, that Poland government’s decision to co-host the coal summit in the midst of the global climate change conference has also elicited critical remarks from Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In a keynote address, she said: “Let me be clear from the outset that my joining you today is neither a tacit approval of coal use, nor a call for the immediate disappearance of coal. But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.”

The World Coal Summit came close on the heels of the release of the findings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shows that human-generated climate change is real and accelerating.

“The IPCC’s findings have been endorsed by 195 governments, including all of those in which you operate. We are at unprecedented greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere; our carbon budget is half spent. If we continue to meet energy needs as we have in the past, we will overshoot the internationally agreed goal to limit warming to less than two degree Celsius,” she told the coal summit.

Figueres said that in order to make this radical transformation, further capital expenditure on coal could only go ahead if it is compatible with the 2 degree Celsius limit. She pointed to the building groundswell of climate action and climate change-related policies at all levels of government and society.

“All of this tells me that the coal industry faces a business continuation risk that you cannot afford to ignore. Like any other industry, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your workforce and shareholders. And by now it is abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can only go ahead if they are compatible with the 2 degree Celsius limit.”

‘No business as usual’

Figueres urged the coal industry to honestly assess the financial risks of business as usual, to anticipate increasing regulation, growing finance restrictions and diminishing public acceptance and to leverage technology to reduce emissions immediately across the entire chain of coal output.

The UNFCCC Executive Secretary also said that the industry would need to diversity its portfolio beyond coal, noting that the bottom line for the atmosphere is that most existing coal reserves will have to stay in the ground.

“Some major oil, gas and energy technology companies are already investing in renewables, and I urge those of you who have not yet started to do this to join them. By diversifying your portfolio beyond coal, you too can produce clean energy that reduces pollution, enhances public health, increases energy security, and creates new jobs,” she said, and called on the industry to “look past next quarter’s bottom line and see the next generation’s bottom line.”

WRI’s Levin and Yang stress the need to “start moving away from unabated coal use – and start transitioning to a low-carbon economy.” They find it encouraging that renewable energy generation is already rapidly increasing around the world, driven by declining costs and progressive government policies that make clean energy cost-competitive with fossil fuels. And, as the scientific statement notes, 42 percent of all new electric generation capacity in 2012 was renewable energy.

They call upon COP 19 negotiators to play a key role in shifting from coal to a low-carbon future. Because it is important that they make progress toward establishing an international climate agreement in 2015 – one that’s ambitious enough to keep temperatures within the 2 degree C target.

WRI experts are of the view that countries can move this agreement forward in Warsaw by putting forth a process for delivering transparent and ambitious national emissions reductions offers. “Securing an international climate agreement by 2015 is essential – it would send clear signals to investors to shift financing away from fossil fuels like coal and toward clean energy.” [IDN-InDepthNews – November 19, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Big Bend Coal Power Station in Apollo Beach, Florida in the United States | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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