Ten years ago I visited West Virginia to report on Mountaintop Removal, the controversial practice of blowing up hilltops with explosives in order to mine coal without the hassle of digging great pits. ‘We are the Saudi Arabia of coal,’ was the popular motto there at the time. On that occasion, I returned with a small lump of coal, still hoping for a more sustainable future.
If we were to get rid of coal tomorrow, the problems of melting ice, rising sea levels and Arctic forests up in flame would mostly be solved. The black stuff is responsible for 46 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, not to mention the methane, metals and unhealthy particulates also released when it is burned. There are an estimated 2,490 coal plants in operation today and nearly 700 more to be built. China, the world’s factory, is by far the worst offender. And there is no end in sight.
Portugal just announced that its last coal plant will shut in 2021, two years earlier than scheduled. The rising cost of CO2 pollution allowances on the EU carbon market may finally encourage other European countries to follow suit (bar Poland, whose right wing government won the recent election on the promise that it would bail out the vast coal reserves). Japan has pledged to phase–out 114 of its 140 coal power plants but will build new ‘clean’ ones by 2030, as the country still relies on it. ‘There is no such thing as clean coal’, replied UN secretary general António Guterres, speaking in Beijing last July.
The myth of clean coal has been fuelled for a long time by the World Coal Association and its peers, through the promotion of technologies such as HELE (High Efficiency, Low Emission) and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) which are costly, unproven and, as Guterres argued, delusional.
‘Renewables offer three times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries,’ the secretary general remarked. Despite this, it looks like the opportunity for trillion-dollar, clean-energy Covid-19 recovery plans will be largely squandered, maybe not in Europe (with the notable exception of Poland) but in Asia, in Australia and in the US, where the biggest coal reserves are.
When I took with me that lump of West Virginian mineral fossil, I was hoping to see it turn one day into a fossil of the most damaging human practices. I’m afraid that day is still too far away.