“[P]romoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”
— Michael Bloomberg
When, as a kid, I ceaselessly bugged my mother about what I was getting for Christmas, she would smirk and say, “Same as other bad kids: a lump of coal.”
Well, I guess we’ve all been bad this year, because our government is promising us lumps of coal in our Christmas stockings — and it’s been busy telling the whole world why we deserve them. For example, the U.S. delegation’s presentation to November’s COP23 UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany — which featured talks by coal company executives — tried to make the case to the global community that we need to burn more coal to fight global warming.
Although deciphering the delegation’s rationale for this singular assertion is, um, challenging, their argument seemed to run something like this: About 1.5 billion of the worlds people suffer from energy poverty (they lack electricity). People can afford to enact environmental protections only when they’ve risen above poverty. Burning coal is the cheapest way to produce electricity, so we need to burn more of it to enrich them so they’ll protect the environment.
Rephrased, the delegates said that we should use the most polluting energy source to reduce pollution ... something like burning the village in order to save it.
The reaction of virtually all the other COP23 delegates to the American proposal was swift and severe. A typical statement came from the Kenya Climate Working Group’s Benson Kibiti who said, “More coal is not going to end the problem of people living without electricity. The vast majority – 84% – of electricity-poor households globally are in rural areas, so off-grid solutions powered by renewables like solar, wind and small hydro are going to be the cheapest and quickest.”
And expressing the sentiments of many of the conference participants and the world’s climate and energy experts, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh said, “Any country or company continuing to champion coal or even other fossil fuels from now on would be willfully carrying out a crime against humanity.”
Along with emitting the highest level of CO2 of any fuel type, the burning of coal also emits high levels of toxic hydrocarbons. A 2016 statistical compilation by the NGO Global Burden of Disease, made in coordination with the University of Washington and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that air pollution, mostly from burning coal, causes about 5.5 million premature deaths globally — per year. Most of those are in poor or developing countries such as India, but a 2017 Scientific American article cited research showing that, annually, 7,500 to 52,000 (median 22,250) Americans die prematurely from power-plant air pollution.
The good news this Christmas — hey, maybe we haven’t been so bad after all — is that coal use is on the decline in the U.S. and globally. Renewables now cost the same as or less than coal, and produce energy without the nasty side effects.
In 2013, the International Energy Agency estimated that coal consumption would grow by 40 percent by 2040. In 2017, that estimate was dropped to one percent. And in the U.S., the number of people employed in coal production, 50,000, is shrinking — and will continue to shrink — while those employed in the more-competitive alternative-energy fields, 250,000, is growing. It’s past time for us to give those coal workers a Christmas gift of training programs for jobs in the healthy clean-energy field.
The U.S. COP23 delegation is right that there was a time, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, when burning coal was beneficial, helping elevate the masses out of poverty. But that was before we had alternatives at our ecological house.