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Short-sighted approaches to climate and energy wont fix anything

By Benjamin Sporton - posted Thursday, 15 March 2012


When you run an ideological campaign, sometimes the means risk becoming more important than the ends – and you miss the bigger picture.

Last week it was revealed that Greenpeace Australia is planning to lead a massive campaign against the coal industry in that country. The plan aims to disrupt the Australian coal industry through a range of public relations, litigation and other actions aimed at making the industry unviable.

This plan has been widely condemned in Australia. The Federal Treasurer (finance minister) said "I find it pretty disturbing because the coal industry is a very important industry in Australia," while Prime Minister Julia Gillard reaffirmed support for the industry saying "The coal industry has got a great future in this country …. we've made that clear all along. You're seeing that future being built now as we see expansion in our coal exports particularly." Their statements echoed those of many other Australian business, union and political leaders.

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And it’s no wonder. According to the Australian Coal Association 77% of Australia’s electricity comes from coal and coal exports pump more than AUD$43 billion into the economy every year. Even more importantly billions of dollars of royalties help state governments fund vital community services such as schools and hospital and fund social infrastructure projects. Without the coal industry those funds would dry up.

Trying to remove coal from the mix is a short sighted solution to addressing the world’s climate and energy challenges.  Globally coal provides more than 40% of the world’s electricity and it has been the fastest growing fuel for more than two decade. As the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency said in a speech recently, coal must be part of the solution to climate change. Deploying clean coal technologies such as high efficiency low emission power generation and carbon capture and storage can significantly reduce the cost of climate action. What’s more, coal plays a major role in providing the steel needed for other sources of renewable energy (see our recent graphic on coal and wind power).

Campaigns like this also ignore the critical role coal will play in delivering energy to the 1.3 billion people across the globe who lack access to electricity. Last year’s World Energy Outlook highlighted that of all the on-grid electricity needed to meet the IEA’s “energy for all” case, more than half would need to come from coal. These figures demonstrate coal’s central role in supporting increasing electricity demand in the future, particularly in a world where more than a billion people live in energy poverty. If the world is to be ambitious in improving energy access, then coal will be needed to meet a very significant proportion of the energy needed.

These campaigns also come amidst studies such as this one, which recently appeared in Environmental Research Letters, which show the limited impact eliminating all coal-fired power generation would have, according to the study eliminating coal from the mix would only reduce global temperatures by 0.2 degrees over the next 100 years. Such a change would come at a massive economic and no doubt social cost, with no real change in climate outcomes.

We need to focus on delivering energy to those who currently lack access to it and supporting developing countries’ economies to grow (which a big chunk of Australia’s coal exports do). Coal can and will play a major role in these efforts, and it can do so with new technologies that address climate and environmental concerns.

If Greenpeace’s campaign were successful, it would come at a massive economic and social cost, with no noticeable environmental benefit. What is the use in that?

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This article was first published on the World Coal Association website.



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About the Author

Benjamin Sporton is the Director of Policy the of World Coal Association. His work focusses on energy poverty, sustainable development and climate change issues. He is an Associate Member of the Coal Industry Advisory Board to the International Energy Agency.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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