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.