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Paris COP21: U.N. Climate Talks
Could Hasten the Demise of Coal

By Fred Pearce

09 Dec 2015

Is Paris the beginning of the end for coal? Coal burning is declining fast in both of the world's two largest carbon dioxide emitters, China and the the United States, with resulting declines in the emissions of both countries. The fuel looks incompatible with a world that warms by no more than two degrees Celsius, bringing calls for its rapid phaseout as the world is "decarbonized."

But, with or without a deal here in Paris later this week, will the calls be heeded? Has the demise of King Coal been greatly exaggerated?

In the U.S., "coal has gone from boom to bust," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. The black stuff's share of electricity generation has sunk from 53 percent to 35 percent in just five

Getty Images
China’s air pollution, which prompted a ‘red alert’ in Beijing yesterday, is pushing it away from coal.

There are many reasons for this. Among them are citizens' campaigns about pollution and asthma, tougher government regulation, and the rise of fracked natural gas, which has lower emissions. But with almost half the country's existing coal plants up for retirement, the coal market is collapsing, and with it the share prices of mining giants like Peabody and Arch Coal.

As coal plants closed in the U.S., those mining companies initially planned to export to China, which in recent years has been burning almost half the world's coal. But that strategy has failed. In 2015, China's coal imports crashed by a third as coal plants there were shut.

The Chinese coal crash could prove to be a temporary response to economic slowdown and fears about severe air pollution. The Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says China had more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants standing idle during the year. What has been switched off could be switched back on again.

But China’s pollution concerns are unlikely to go away, its economy is shifting away from heavy industry, its renewable energy sector is growing rapidly, and the government has imposed a cap on burning coal. This all suggests a long-term trend.

"Coal is not king any more in China, “ Fuqiang Yang of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Beijing office said here this week. “It will have a minor role in the future." Coal is currently responsible for 80 percent of the country's electricity generation. But he calculates that will fall to 30 percent by 2040, and 18 percent by 2050.

Then there is India. It plans a staggering 110 gigawatts of new coal-burning power plants in the next seven years. But India is also investing heavily in renewables, Navroz Dubash, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told a meeting here. And he believes renewables will eventually win the day.

One reason is again air pollution. By some measures Delhi has worse smog than Beijing. There is also growing opposition to new coal mines in India. If the country's plans for 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2020 work out well, then the sun is likely to be the future energy source of choice.

Globally, the boom in coal over the past decade is over. New plants are being canceled and existing ones mothballed. Coalswarm, an information center set up by The Sierra Club, says that around the world plans for two coal plants are shelved or canceled for every one plant that gets built.

There are holdouts. India, Turkey, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines all still have big coal plans, says Markus Haggeman of the London-based New Climate Institute. Fast-expanding Vietnam has also earmarked coal for an increasing share in power-generation, according to an unpublished World Bank study seen by Yale Environment 360.

Some believe coal can survive by being made cleaner, with better combustion technology to reduce smog and with carbon emissions captured and buried underground. But as Bill Hare of the European think tank Climate Analytics asks, why bother with such expensive and technically challenging add-ons when prices for renewable energy are falling fast? Wind and solar power are almost certain to be much cheaper than coal long before the 40-year lifetime of a typical coal-fired power plant is complete.

In much of the world, coal still benefits from public subsidies and low interest rates in capital markets. But, in the long run, says Brune, "Coal is a risky and expensive investment for any nation."

The Paris conference should help that perception and keep coal in the ground. Coal is not formally on the agenda. No negotiators are urging text in the final agreement to purge it from the energy system. But that aspiration is implicit in calls for a long-term goal to "decarbonize" the global economy. As the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, coal would have to go first.

Unsurprisingly, coal-dependent nations like India and Turkey are leading the opposition to the inclusion of such language.

But, whatever the agreed long-term goals, many of the national pledges on emissions from now to 2030 are inconsistent with maintaining coal as a main source of energy. And the global target of keeping warming to 2 degrees C probably requires that virtually all new investment in mining and burning coal cease.

The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a think tank set up by former investment analysts, has looked at the implications for fossil fuels of limiting the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations from the current 400 parts per million to a ceiling of 450 ppm. That is the figure likely to be required to halt warming at two degrees. "The inevitable conclusion we can draw on the future of global thermal coal is that it has none," says Anthony Hobley, the Initiative's CEO. "No new coal mines are needed."

Hobley reckons that some $220 billion in coal-mining assets are already "stranded," with no prospect of paying back their investment cost if the world is serious about the two-degree ceiling.

Exactly how serious the world is about that remains to be seen. If a deal is done here in Paris on Friday, and if countries go home and turn their emissions promises into energy policies, then coal is dead and buried. If not, then King Coal may continue to reign — over a climate-ravaged world.

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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