De­spite dan­gers, world still re­lies on coal to fuel power

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SO­MINI SEN­GUPTA


Coal, the fuel that pow­ered the in­dus­trial age, has led the planet to the brink of catas­trophic cli­mate change.

Sci­en­tists have re­peat­edly warned of its loom­ing dan­gers, most re­cently Fri­day, when a ma­jor sci­en­tific re­port is­sued by 13 U.S. govern­ment agen­cies con­cluded that the dam­age from cli­mate change could knock as much as 10 per­cent off the size of the U.S. econ­omy by cen­tury’s end if sig­nif­i­cant steps aren’t taken to rein in warm­ing.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, an Oc­to­ber re­port from the United Na­tions’ sci­en­tific panel on global warm­ing found that avoid­ing the worst dev­as­ta­tion would re­quire a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the world econ­omy in just a few years.

Cen­tral to that trans­for­ma­tion: get­ting out of coal, and fast.

And yet three years af­ter the Paris Agree­ment, when world lead­ers promised ac­tion, coal shows no sign of dis­ap­pear­ing.

While coal use is cer­tain to even­tu­ally wane world­wide, it is not on track to hap­pen any­where fast enough to avert the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est as­sess­ment by the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency. Last year, in fact, global pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion in­creased af­ter two years of de­cline.

Cheap, plen­ti­ful and the most pol­lut­ing of fos­sil fu­els, coal re­mains the sin­gle largest source of en­ergy to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity world­wide. This, even as re­new­ables like so­lar and wind power are rapidly be­com­ing more af­ford­able. Soon, coal could make no fi­nan­cial sense for its back­ers.

So, why is coal so hard to quit?

Be­cause coal is a pow­er­ful in­cum­bent. It’s there by the mil­lions of tons un­der the ground. Pow­er­ful com­pa­nies, backed by pow­er­ful gov­ern­ments, of­ten in the form of sub­si­dies, are in a rush to grow their mar­kets be­fore it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big na­tional elec­tric­ity grids were de- signed for it. Coal plants can be a sure­fire way for politi­cians to de­liver cheap elec­tric­ity – and re­tain their own power. In some coun­tries, it has been a glis­ten­ing source of graft.

And even while re­new­ables are spread­ing fast, they still have lim­its: Wind and so­lar power flow when the breeze blows and the sun shines, and that re­quires tra­di­tional elec­tric­ity grids to be re­tooled.

“The main rea­son why coal sticks around is, we built it al­ready,” said Ro­hit Chan­dra, who did his doc­tor­ate in en­ergy pol­icy at Har­vard, spe­cial­iz­ing in coal in In­dia.


The bat­tle over the fu­ture of coal is be­ing waged in Asia.

Home to half the world’s pop­u­la­tion, Asia ac­counts for three-fourths of global coal con­sump­tion to­day. More im­por­tant, it ac­counts for more than three-fourths of coal plants that are ei­ther un­der con­struc­tion or in the plan­ning stages – a whop­ping 1,200 of them, ac­cord­ing to Urge­wald, a Ger­man ad­vo­cacy group that tracks coal de­vel­op­ment. Heffa Schück­ing, who heads Urge­wald, called those plants “an as­sault on the Paris goals.”

In­done­sia is dig­ging more coal. Viet­nam is clear­ing ground for new coal-fired power plants. Ja­pan, reel­ing from 2011 nu­clear plant dis­as­ter, has res­ur­rected coal.

The world’s jug­ger­naut, though, is China. The coun­try con­sumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 mil­lion Chi­nese are em­ployed in the coun­try’s coal mines. China has added 40 per­cent of the world’s coal ca­pac­ity since 2002, a huge in­crease for just 16 years. “I had to do the cal­cu­la­tion three times,” said Car­los Fernán­dez Al­varez, a se­nior en­ergy an­a­lyst at the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.”


Spurred by pub­lic out­cry over air pol­lu­tion, China is now also the world leader in so­lar and wind power in­stal­la­tion, and its cen­tral govern­ment has tried to slow down coal plant con­struc­tion. But an anal­y­sis by Coal Swarm, a U.S.based team of re­searchers that ad­vo­cates for coal al­ter­na­tives, con­cluded that new plants con­tinue to be built, and other pro­posed pro­jects have sim­ply been de­layed rather than stopped. Chi­nese coal con­sump­tion grew in

2017, though at a far slower pace than be­fore, and is on track to grow again in 2018, af­ter de­clin­ing in pre­vi­ous years.

China’s coal in­dus­try is now scram­bling to find new mar­kets, from Kenya to Pak­istan. Chi­nese com- pa­nies are build­ing coal plants in 17 coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to Urge­wald. Its re­gional ri­val, Ja­pan, is in the game, too: Nearly 60 per­cent of planned coal pro­jects de­vel­oped by Ja­panese com­pa­nies are out­side the coun­try, mostly fi­nanced by Ja­panese banks.

That con­test is par­tic­u­larly stark in South­east Asia, one of the world’s last frontiers of coal ex­pan­sion.


Nguy Thi Khanh has seen the con­test close-up in Viet­nam. Born in 1976, a year af­ter the end of the war, she re­mem­bers do­ing home­work by the light of a kerosene lamp. In her north­ern vil­lage, the elec­tric­ity failed sev­eral hours a day. When it rained, there was no power at all. When it did come, it came from a coal plant not far away.

To­day, pretty much ev­ery house­hold in Viet­nam, pop­u­la­tion 95 mil­lion, has elec­tric­ity.

Hanoi, the cap­i­tal, where Nguy now lives, is in a frenzy of new con­struc­tion, with soar­ing de­mand for ce­ment and steel – both en­ergy guz­zlers. The econ­omy is gal­lop­ing. And, up and down the coast, 994 miles in length, for­eign com­pa­nies, mainly from Ja­pan and China, are build­ing coal plants.


Min­ers re­move and store coal ex­tracted from a mine in In­dia. Coal shows no sign of dis­ap­pear­ing and is the sin­gle largest source of en­ergy to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity world­wide.

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