‘Coal has a very important role in our energy mix and I have no doubt it will have for many, many years to come, possibly forever.’ How can you utter such a thing without laughing? Coal, while being more abundant on Earth than oil and gas, is the worst climate offender by far. For every megawatt-hour generated, coal-fired power stations emit around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, nearly double their gas-fired counterparts.
The trouble is that Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, once an advocate for carbon-neutral policies, was serious while pronouncing those words. Climate change should be well known Down Under, as recent harsh droughts or the ongoing bleaching of the Great Reef Barrier (due to CO2-induced ocean acidification and ocean warming) are potent enough reminders. Australia, as a signatory to the Paris Agreement, has pledged to keep the temperature rise ‘well below 2°C’, if possible at 1.5°C. An epic task that can only be accomplished by phasing out coal combustion as fast as possible – certainly, not by burning it ‘forever’.
It is true that in 2017 China coal production (3.1 billion tonnes) eclipsed Australia (0.4 billion tonnes), but in Beijing the word ‘forever’ is not in use. Just last month the People’s Republic launched a three-year plan that includes measures ‘to vigorously eliminate coal-fired units of less than 300,000 kilowatts that are not up to environmental, efficiency and safety standards’ while investing more in renewable energy. Even now, under Xi Jinping’s tighter grip, China is widely expected to fulfil its own pledges under the Paris Agreement.
Here is the point. In order to keep our common atmosphere in thermal equilibrium, we need a worldwide, multilateral commitment to phase out fossil fuel combustion, and coal combustion in particular. Now more so, as a leaked version of the summary to the new IPCC report due out in October, clearly states that the 1.5°C goal is hard to reach and that a warming of 2°C would be ‘substantially’ more harmful.
After president Donald Trump walked away from the Paris Agreement and pursued the rebirth of an ailing coal industry, unilateralism is now in vogue. Turnbull’s ‘forever coal’ is just as trendy. Yet, if IPCC scientists are right, one day they will be both proven deadly wrong. It won’t take forever.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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