Day Four: What Role for Coal?


The ultimate ambition of the COP process is a decarbonised global economy by 2050. Such an economy is expected to be built upon a renewables foundation. (No one even whispers the word ‘nuclear’).  The role of the COP gatherings is to plot the course to a carbon-free planet. For some, this journey is but a single ‘renewables’ step.  For others the road is considerably longer and consists of a whole series of steps and bridges: measures to mitigate the impact of burning coal (like CCS and über efficient power stations), conversion to less polluting hydrocarbons like gas (often extracted via fracking). Each step reduces carbon emissions, and buys time for the implementation of greener approaches. The US reduction in carbon emissions has nothing to do with renewables and everything to do with gas.

Binding problems

The EU has set itself up as a climate change leader. Its climate change targets are the most demanding of any country or bloc on the planet.  Here in Lima, the EU’s drive toward a binding 40% emissions reduction target by 2030 is not only setting the pace, it is frustrating some of the other runners, particularly the US.  Binding v. indicative targets is where it is at.

Missing targets and the danger of the average

However, look closer, drill down. Not all EU member states are meeting their targets; an EU average hides a multitude of sins.  At present 13 member states are failing to meet their emission reduction targets, including Poland and Romania.  When it comes to the target for electricity generated from renewables, it is estimated that 14 states will miss the 2020 EU target.

Despite the fact that these failings vary from state to state, the debate is often reduced to a single proposition: reliance upon coal.  ‘Coal’ is another word barely whispered here in Lima.

The role of coal when you’re in a hole

Within the EU, this debate is usually characterised as Poland against the rest.  Poland where coal is king. Poland where the problems of carbon emissions are denied. Poland where heavy industry is still heavy.  Of course Poland is not alone.  There are presently 10 EU member states where coal generates more than a third of electricity share, including the UK and Germany.  Indeed the cheap coal from America, liberated by the US’s growing reliance on fracked gas, has driven up consumption of coal to the highest level since 2008. Coal currently generates 27% of the EU’s electricity.

Perversely, Chancellor Merkel’s ambition to wean Germany off nuclear and fossil fuels by 2050 and to rely more on less reliable wind, has seen German carbon emissions rise and electricity prices skyrocket. The predicament has seen Germany return to coal to keep the lights on. Let’s not forget that Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions are higher than Poland’s (and fourteen other EU member states).

At last year’s climate talks in Warsaw some 800 green NGOs walked out protesting a lack of ambition in the negotiating text. Polish negotiators also walked out protesting too much ambition.  Can there be a climate deal in Paris without Poland?

What future for coal

The EU is currently sitting upon a resource of some 40 billion tonnes of coal, of which the  biggest proved reserve is in Poland.  There is more coal under our feet than there is frackable gas or oil. Compared to unconventional hydrocarbon, or even conventional for that matter, coal extraction is relatively simple.

UN chief negotiator Christiana Figures recently noted that coal ‘can be part of the solution to global warming.’ In her speech to the 2013 Coal and Climate Summit, she also noted coal power ‘could help poorer countries' economic development and poverty reduction’.

The next generation of coal-fired thermal power stations can reduce emissions by up to 40% compared to older coal power plants. Such new plants currently operate at around 30% efficiency, but with investment in new technology, this can climb to 50%, a figure consistent with the EU’s 2030 emissions target.  Techniques like Carbon Capture & Storage (CSS) to confine CO2 emissions underground, fluidised bed combustion to improve efficiency, or the conversion of coal to a cleaner gas, can all play their part.

The challenge for Poland and others is that this technology does not come cheap, and investment has all but dried up as the EU adopts a zero tolerance attitude to coal. This despite the fact that coal remains an integral ingredient in our energy mix and will remain so for many years to come.  The only serious prospect for investment in carbon mitigation would appear to be CCS, but in this the EU has conspicuously failed to secure any serious commitment at member state level.

European energy security

There is another all too real consideration: Europe and Russia are at war; not a shooting war, not even a cold war, but a trade war.  Its consequences could be just as deadly.  The further east you find yourself in the EU, the greater the dependence upon foreign energy. Poland imports 60% of its gas, mostly from Russia. And the corollary of this dependence? less financial resources available to mitigate and adapt to climate change.  Poland pays more for its Russian gas than France, the Netherlands and the UK.

Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe are in the front line.  The simple question to be addressed: what happens when the gas stops flowing?  Russia turning off the gas is an all too immediate threat to Poland, to its industry, its economic wellbeing, to its people. Poland’s dependence on coal will be, for the foreseeable future, their only guarantee of energy security.

A new paradigm

The Commission recognises the dilemma of energy security, identifying over-reliance on imported hydrocarbons as a serious threat.  It has already recognised the importance of indigenous energy resources such as coal in addressing this dependency. Next year the Commission will seek to reconcile its ambitious emissions reduction pledges and the need to ensure energy security within the EU.

Balancing the demands of east and west, indigenous energy and imported energy,  renewables versus traditional energy generation, will be a Herculean challenge. At its heart must lie innovation, technology, new processes, and a new paradigm in which our long term ambition to achieve a decarbonised globe is reconciled with short term necessities and the measures that allow us to mitigate their impact. Let’s see what emerges from Lima…