Coal and climate change


Down to Earth Newsletter No 85-86 (Indonesia’s Coal: Local impacts – global links)

Down to Earth Newsletter No 85-86 (Indonesia’s Coal: Local impacts – global links)

August 2010

The rise in average atmospheric temperature and increased frequency of extreme weather events are widely understood to be a major threat to the future of all current human societies and ecological zones.

Despite increasing scepticism in some parts of the world, there is widespread agreement among climate scientists that certain gases present in the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane, trap heat and function as ‘greenhouse gases’. It is feared that the increase in the atmospheric concentration of these gases as a result of human activity will cause a rise in temperature of at least two, and possibly six, degrees centigrade during this century. The exact effects of such rapid temperature rises have been difficult to predict but it is believed that they will include even higher temperature rises at higher latitudes, especially polar regions; significant rising of sea level, resulting in inundation of low lying areas; some melting of icecaps, permafrost and glaciers; and changes in weather patterns, including more droughts, heat waves and more powerful, and possibly unseasonal, storms.

Some low-lying island states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are fearful for their continued existence even if there are only moderate rises in sea level. Many other low-lying regions may also be seriously affected.

Minimising the damage – or not

The view of the great majority of climate scientists is that climate change is already under way and that already-released greenhouse gases will continue to contribute further to global warming throughout at least the next decade. They urge strong mitigating measures to cut the geeration of greenhouse gases and thereby limit the serious negative effects which are predicted. Most governments are also committed in words and international agreements to measures attempting to minimise the degree and mitigate the effects of climate change. Some are committing themselves, in theory, to radical measures to reduce the output of greenhouse gases. The United Kingdom, for example, recently adopted targets for an 80% cut in UK carbon dioxide emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. Such large cuts are seen as essential to address the scale of the crisis.

These cuts cannot be achieved without significant changes to the nature of the current economy. This does not have to mean reductions in employment – indeed, climate campaign groups specifically advocate investment in new, ‘green’ jobs in industrialised economies. Neither does it necessarily involve huge reductions in energy use – but it does require changes in the sources of energy used. Some scientists argue that 95% of the world’s energy needs could be provided by renewable sources by 2050.

But there is a massive contradiction between government and business statements and their current investment plans. Governments across the world are encouraging industry to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build hundreds of new coal-fired power stations in the coming years – notably in the USA, India and China.

Much of this expansion would be impossible without government support. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states in a June 2010 report, Global fossil fuel subsidies and the impacts of their removal, that global subsidised consumption of fossil fuels amounted to US$557 billion in 2008, including $40 billion for coal consumption. In June 2010 the European Union was considering twelve more years of state aid for coal, a draft European Commission document showed, even as the Group of 20 prepared to discuss phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. The IEA suggests that, compared to a baseline in which subsidy rates remain unchanged, global subsidy phase-out would cut global energy demand by 5.8%, and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 6.9%, by 2020. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has urged governments to end fossil fuel subsidies, arguing that this could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10%

Another way in which the governments of industrialised countries encourage coal use is through the carbon trading system in use in the European Union and encouraged by the Kyoto Protocol. Participating governments have already given large quantities of free carbon permits to companies which use coal to generate electricity. Some of the least acceptable of the permits have been given to steel and aluminium producers, too – the latter using more electricity per unit of output than any other industrial operation, apart from uranium hexafluoride production. These permits can either be used to continue producing high levels of carbon dioxide or traded for cash. In this way, heavily polluting companies can both carry on polluting and profit from enabling others to pollute.

There is vigorous and mounting opposition to the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD Programme), other REDD schemes linked to carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism because of the opportunities which they provide for companies to avoid making meaningful emissions reductions.

Greenpeace estimates that if all the planned coal-fired power stations are built, carbon dioxide emissions from coal would rise 60 percent by 2030. 15 This would have severe negative impacts on any international agreements to tackle climate change. But the global coal industry continues to be able to mobilise finance on behalf of its projects across the world. The World Bank, for instance, according to the Bank Information Centre, saw a 200% increase in funding for coal-based initiatives between 2007 and 2009.

Coal’s contribution to carbon emissions

As fossil fuels are burned to produce energy, the carbon in the fuel reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide gas, CO2. Most of this is released into the atmosphere. Burning coal (which consists of ‘free’ carbon) produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than any other fossil fuel. Compared to gas (which consists mostly of the carbon-compound methane, CH4), coal releases 66% more CO2 per unit of energy generated.

Coal mining releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. In the USA in 2006, 26% of energy-related methane release was a direct result of the mining of buried coal strata. Around the world, about 7% of annual methane emissions originate from coal mining. This methane could be used to produce energy more efficiently than the coal itself. Methane can theoretically be captured from underground strata before opencast mining takes place, but this is rarely, if ever, done. It is easier to capture it in underground mines.

Coal mining and the burning of coal for energy generation, cement manufacture and steel production have been among the major engines of global warming. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published on 9 June 2010, 2009 was the first year since 2002 that coal was not the fastest growing fuel in the world. This was largely because of the slackening of demand from industrial consumers in the more heavily-industrialised OECD countries. Demand in the Asia Pacific region and the Middle East grew by 7.4%. China was responsible for 95% of that increase and was, overall, the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, accounting for 46.9% of global coal consumption and producing 45.6% of global supplies during 2009, according to the BP report. Other producing countries differ widely in the proportion of their coal that they export.

BP noted that coal remains the most abundant fossil fuel by global reserves, and accounted for 29% of total energy consumption in 2009 – the highest proportion since 1970. The IEA forecast in its World Energy Outlook for 2009 that until 2030 global demand for coal would grow much more than demand for both natural gas and oil. The World Coal Institut forecasts that use of coal will rise by 60% over the next 20 years. It is estimated that 45% of carbon dioxide emissions will in 2030 be linked to coal.

Challenges to the coal industry over climate change

In many countries, including coal producing countries, there has been an increase in activism against the use of coal in recent years, mainly because of concern about the climate. The Pacific Island state of Micronesia is using existing environmental laws and the United Nations treaty on impact assessments to try to prevent the expansion of a coal fired plant by a Czech company, CEZ. Its plant at Prunerov in the north of the Czech Republic was, according to Micronesia, the 18th biggest source of greenhouse gases in the European Union, emitting about 40 times more carbon dioxide than the entire Pacific island federation.

Clean coal?

Some pro-coal bodies, particularly in the USA, have sought to inhibit the imposition of measures to slow global warming. The coal, cement and steel industries lobbied hard to weaken international efforts to impose strict limits on carbon emissions at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, and succeeded in persuading governments to opt for actions aimed at limiting average temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 – insufficiently strict, in the view of most climate scientists, to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. In attempting to present a clean image of coal its proponents in both industry and government argue that one specific technical fix will reduce the mineral’s “carbon footprint”.

This fix is so-called “Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)” which is claimed to catch and safely store the carbon within the carbon dioxide emissions. But, according to Michael Economides (Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston, Texas), “[G]eologic sequestration of CO2 [is] a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.” He suggests that there are insufficient geological formations suitable to store the enormous quantities of carbon dioxide which would be emitted under current energy-use projections. There is also no guarantee that formations would not rupture, causing stored carbon dioxide to bubble back up to the surface and into the atmosphere. In fact, several experts doubt that CCS technology will ever be feasible. Yet governments, including the UK Government, have paved the way for a whole new round of coal-fired power stations based on the promise that someday it will be. European Union member states will, between now and 2015, allocate about one billion euros to between six and twelve CCS ‘proof-of-concept’ projects. The Geological Survey departments in a number of countries including the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and the USA are aggressively assessing the CCS potential of their on-shore and off-shore subsurface geological formations. There are a rapidly growing number of active small-scale sequestration projects being constructed or planned, either as part of enhanced oil recovery efforts or straight proof-of-concept CCS efforts, in Algeria, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the USA.

Another means of extending the life of the carbon economy is the processing of coal into a liquid fuel. This is an extremely difficult and dirty process resulting in a product that will, in production and use, deepen the environmental crisis of global warming rather than reduce it.

No clean coal

In July 2008, a report by the UK Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee attacked the belief that ‘dirty coal’ will be eradicated in our own lifetimes. Pointing out that ‘clean coal’ can be used as a ‘fig leaf’ to cover technological and economic uncertainties over coal’s future, the Committee concluded that, “unless there is a dramatic technological development, coal should be seen as the last resort, even with the promise of carbon capture and storage.”

The prominent US political commentator, Joshua Frank, citing the work of Michael Economides (see above) in Truthout, February 2010, concludes: “We ought to bag the idea that coal can be clean altogether. The public investment in clean-coal technology is a fraud and will only serve as a life-support system for an industry that must be phased out completely over the course of the next two decades. Putting billions of dollars behind a dead-end theory will not bring about the energy changes our country and climate so drastically need.”

Date of publication: 
8 November 2010
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