The end of coal?

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Have we seen the last of gigantic coal trains powering the Chinese economy? Have we seen the last of gigantic coal trains powering the Chinese economy? zhaoliang70
05 Mar
2016
In this month’s regular look at the world of climate change, Marco Magrini asks if the days of coal are coming to an end

It powered the first industrial revolution, paving the way for the economic boom and the demographic explosion. Yet, as scientist James Hansen bluntly argues, ‘it is the greatest threat to civilisation’. Coal is irrevocably on the wrong side of history. Blamed for its side effects (it emits as much as twice the amount of carbon dioxide released from natural gas, per unit of energy) and for its dirtiness (adding sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead to the air), the most abundant fossil fuel on Earth has begun to bow out.

China’s consumption of coal peaked in 2013, fell last year by 5.7 per cent and now, as part of efforts by President Xi Jinping to clean up its unbreathable air, the People’s Republic has announced a plan to shut down 500 million tons of capacity in the next three to five years. No new mines will be authorised this decade. Last November, according to the latest data available from the US Energy Information Administration, power generation from coal fell to its lowest level in 35 years. Thanks to abundant and cleaner shale gas, coal prices in America have tumbled, not to mention the coal companies’ stock prices: former giants like Peabody Energy or Arch Coal have shed a staggering 98 per cent of their value since mid-2011. No wonder that, just last year, over 15 gigawatts worth of American coal-fired plants have been shut or converted to gas. Now the UK has vowed to shut down its last coal-fired power station by 2025. Alberta, the Canadian province that literally sits on a bed of coal and sandy bitumen, is committed to phasing out the black stuff by 2030. Is it safe to say that King Coal’s best days are over?

The good news is the planet is in rehab: investments in clean energy are soaring. This is where the money is now

Coal-fired power plants are monstrous belching machines that are meant to churn out electricity for at least three decades. With such a time frame, no banks or investors are insane enough to fund anything so dicey. The UN’s Paris Agreement sets the stage for investing in renewable rather than fossil energy. It’s true that the world still has to figure out how to put a global price on emissions, to take into account the hidden environmental costs of our fossil fuel addiction. But the good news is the planet is in rehab: investments in clean energy are soaring. This is where the money is, now.

Having said that, reports of coal’s death are exaggerated. While Wall Street may never see a resurrection in coal stock prices and pension funds are shunning coal investments on ethical concerns, the dirtiest of all fuels will only be overtaken by clean energy sources in 2030, according to the IEA. And it will still survive after that. For any concerned climatologist, it is still too late. The collapse of coal’s long-standing reign can’t be celebrated yet. But any shortening of the time until its complete demise is to be cheered.

This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Get the best stories from Geographical delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

This winter has seen frequent storms and flooding hitting many…

Wildlife

The bison, Poland’s symbol of nature conservation, already faces controversial…

Wildlife

Wolves have arrived at a wildlife park in Devon as…

Climate

An unassuming beach in Denmark is absorbing record-breaking levels of…

Energy

The environmental cost of military activities is significant. Could new…

Wildlife

Latest figures suggest that there are more than twice as…

Tectonics

How does the proposed allocation of ‘Zealandia’ as an independent…

Wildlife

Is extinction forever? While most would assume that yes, extinction…

Geophoto

Wide-angle photography is perhaps the best way to recreate the…

Wildlife

New book aims to follow in the success of last…

Wildlife

With Queensland koala numbers in free-fall, a novel idea suggests…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Tectonics

Fears that volcano eruptions in Iceland are set to regularly…

Oceans

Now we can all experience diving to the deepest point…

Wildlife

The new President of the United States has a namesake…

Geophoto

17,000 photographs from over 50 countries have been whittled down…

Wildlife

Red squirrels are found to be afflicted with a stubborn…

Polar

The toll, as a response to melting sea ice, would…

Climate

Could rail be the sustainable long-distance freight transport the world…

Energy

Abandoned oil and gas wells in the US are leaking significant…