Will Global Coal Boom Go Bust As Climate Concerns Increase?

The surge in global coal consumption, driven largely by China and India, has climate scientists deeply worried. But environmentalists and a growing number of financial experts say that alarm over global warming may halt the seemingly inevitable rise of the coal industry.

Today, the global economy annually consumes at least 80 times more coal than was burned in 1850 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The International Energy Agency said that global coal use — now close to 8 billion tons a year — could increase by 65 percent by 2035 if current energy trends continue.

A recent independent analysis reported that 1,200 new coal-fired power plants are being proposed worldwide, three-quarters of them in India and China. The planet still has so much coal underground that if industrial economies mine and burn this fossil fuel at current rates, known reserves would last for more than a century.

The problem, as the world’s climate scientists point out, is that to continue burning coal at the ever-expanding pace of recent years means that there is little hope of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). To combust even a third to a half of the world’s proven reserves of coal would — barring the widespread adoption of carbon-capture technologies — lead to a climate-destabilizing rise in temperature far in excess of 2 degrees C, according to recent studies.

All of which means that the most important question facing the world today as it confronts the challenge of global warming is this: Can the coal boom be rolled back before it irreparably harms the planet’s climate system?

The coal industry presents the continuing growth of coal as inevitable, maintaining that in the coming decades it is the only cheap, abundant, and reliable energy source capable of allowing rapidly developing countries such as China and India to continue to advance economically. Milton Catelin, chief executive of the World Coal Association, a London-based industry group, says that focusing primarily on coal’s contribution to climate change while ignoring its pivotal role in economic development — helping, for example, to lift more than 600 million Chinese out of poverty — is misguided.

Coal on Conveyor Belt Australia
Coal is carried on a conveyor drift at an Australian mine. IAN WALDIE/BLOOMBERG

“Overcoming global poverty is at least as important a priority (as mitigating climate change) and providing affordable fuel is essential to that,” Catelin said in an email interview. “All of us share the objective of reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and some of us want to do that while not forgetting other challenges.”

But a growing number of people in the environmental and financial communities are questioning the inexorable march of coal, which accounts for 43 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and roughly the same percentage of electricity production. They contend that a host of factors — including rising concern about global warming, air pollution, and water shortages — will lead in the next decade or two to a decline in coal consumption and a realization that investing in coal mining and coal-fired power plants is an increasingly risky financial proposition.

“There’s no way that we can allow the realization of the coal-fired infrastructure that’s on the table now and think that we will have a livable climate,” Justin Guay, Washington representative for the Sierra Club’s International Climate Program, said in an interview. “They’re incompatible… Cracking the consumption of coal is going to happen because coal is going to fall apart under its own weight. I would argue that the majority of the proposed 1,200 coal-fired power plants around the world will never be built.”

Whether such sentiments are mere wishful thinking or will hold true in an energy-hungry world remains to be seen. China and India hold the key to whether global coal consumption will continue to grow rapidly or will decline. And even though China has plans for a massive expansion of mining and construction of coal-fired power plants in its coal-rich western regions, constraints on its unfettered use are growing, most notably from water scarcity and rising public anger over choking air pollution in the nation’s cities.

The coal industry says overcoming global poverty is at least as important as mitigating climate change.

India also faces serious challenges to its plans to build 455 new coal plants. It either must import coal from abroad at higher prices, or significantly expand its mining in the forested regions of central India, home to indigenous tribes and the country’s largest population of Bengal tigers. Opposition to such plans is spreading.

Climate scientists say that in order to hold warming to 2 degrees C — a threshold that will avoid major climate disruption — the world community must begin to reduce emissions from fossil fuels by the end of this decade. Environmentalists and some members of the global financial community believe that as the disruptive effects of climate change intensify, pressure will grow to keep more coal in the ground and to rapidly scale up renewable energy. That could leave the world’s coal and oil companies sitting on tens of trillions of dollars of so-called “stranded assets that cannot be extracted.

The stranded assets concept is based on an influential 2009 study by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which calculated that the planet’s known fossil fuel reserves contain 2,795 gigatons of CO2. In order to stay below 2 degrees C, scientists have estimated that about three-quarters of fossil fuel reserves cannot be exploited. Coal accounts for two-thirds of the world’s known, exploitable carbon reserves.

James Leaton, project director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative — a London-based non-profit that seeks to inform the global financial community about the risks associated with coal and other fossil fuels — contends the industry is sitting atop a large “carbon bubble” that will eventually burst. Global investors and regulators, focused primarily on the short-term, are ignoring that bubble just as they ignored the systemic risks that led to the 2008 financial crisis, Leaton maintains. But he believes that environmental and public pressures, as well as the rapid growth of renewable energy, will soon lead to a drop in demand.

‘Hopefully the clean stuff will look more attractive to investors than the dirty stuff,’ says one activist.

“The key thing for us is that we see more uncertainty and more risk being associated with coal, and less risk and more certainty for renewables,” Leaton said in an interview. “Hopefully we’re getting to the point where the clean stuff looks more attractive to investors than the dirty stuff.”

Others in the finance world agree. The international banking giant HSBC released a report last month warning that the world was heading toward a “peak planet” in which fewer fossil fuels must be burned to avoid severe climate change. “The contradiction between global carbon budgets and fossil fuel reserves is gaining increasing attention,” the report said.

Coal consumption 1850 2050
Global coal consumption, 1850 to 2013 (projected).YALE ENIVORNMENT 360

Even the chief executive of the coal division of BHP Billiton — a major mining company based in Australia — spoke late last year about the limits facing the coal industry.

“In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30- to 40-year time horizon?” Marcus Randolph asked a group of analysts and investors. “You’d have to look at that and say on balance, I suspect, the usage of thermal coal is going to decline. And frankly it should.”

Catelin of the World Coal Association rejects the notion of stranded assets, saying it is “the equivalent of running a cost-benefit analysis on coal without bothering to do the benefit side.”

“It is like analyzing the public health system only through an environmental lens,” he said. “Under such an approach you would only see a system that produces toxic and radioactive wastes; you would ignore the social and economic benefits that such a system brings… Leaving a resource as important as coal in the ground will increase energy costs and exacerbate global poverty.”

Catelin and some environmentalists see eye-to-eye on one important issue — the potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to enable the continued combustion of significant amounts of coal while also locking away CO2 underground. They maintain that while CCS technology has been proven to work, governments have yet to invest enough money to develop it on a massive scale.

“I’m suggesting that we as advocates should add CCS technology to the mix, because if it’s deployed it adds another tool where victory doesn’t depend entirely on leaving 50 to 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground,” David Hawkins, director of climate programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.

Coal has played an indispensable role in China’s dizzying economic development. Since 1990, China’s coal consumption has more than tripled, from 1.1 billion tons to an estimated 3.5 billion tons in 2011. During the same period, China’s inflation-adjusted gross domestic product rose more than 700 percent. In 2011, China burned 49 percent of the world’s coal, and from 2001 to 2011 China accounted for 80 percent of the growth in global coal demand.

Decoupling China’s economic development from coal, which supplies 80 percent of the nation’s electricity, is a gargantuan challenge.

Coal miner in Inner Mongolia
A coal miner in an open pit mine in Inner Mongolia. CHINA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

“China’s main resource is coal,” Zou Ji, deputy director for China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy, told the Web site Chinadialogue earlier this year. “Moving to clean energy is a massive challenge. Meanwhile, we still need to urbanize and educate hundreds of millions of rural residents. Quality of life needs to be improved.”

Still, climate change advocates see some hopeful signs, including the steady growth of renewable energy in China — now supplying more than 19 percent of the country’s electricity — and government initiatives to improve energy efficiency and make the economy less carbon-intensive. Environmental and social constraints also threaten to rein in coal development in China.

Citing a government plan to build 16 coal mining and power plant “mega bases” in western China, Greenpeace said in a report last year, “A fatal dilemma for this energy development plan is negligence of the fact that these mega coal power bases simply don’t have the water resource(s) to support their operation.” Coal processing and cooling coal-fired power plants both use large amounts of water.

Ailun Yang, a senior associate in emerging economies at the World Resources Institute, said construction of Chinese coal-fired plants is slowing, with the level of investment in 2011 less than half that of 2005. Reacting to public anger over egregious air pollution in cities like Beijing, the central government has vowed to reduce emissions from coal plants, often placing it at odds with local officials, who elevate economic development above all else.

“I wouldn’t say that right now these constraints are playing a big-enough role to stop the coal-fired plants,” Yang said in an interview. “However, I think they are not to be ignored, because you see the general trend and it’s getting stronger and stronger.”

Coal By the Numbers

8 billion tons of coal now burned annually, 80 times more than in 1850.

1,200 new coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide.

China burns 3.9 billion tons of coal a year, nearly as much as rest of world combined.

70 percent of coal reserves may have to be left in ground to avoid extreme warming.

The United States, which possesses the largest share of global coal reserves (28 percent), is facing a far different situation. A surge in natural gas extraction, growing public opposition to coal-fired power plants, and increasingly strict federal regulations on power plant emissions have dealt a blow to the U.S. coal industry. Conservation groups say that roughly 175 proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled in recent years and that at least a quarter of the more than 500 existing coal-fired power plants in the U.S. will be retired within a decade.

As a result, U.S. coal giants such as Peabody Energy increasingly view the export market as key, with plans to increase shipments from ports on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, as well as proposals to build a handful of large export terminals in the Pacific Northwest for the Asian market. But opposition is intense, and groups like Greenpeace have vowed to block this “fire exit” for the U.S. coal industry.

Whether coal’s momentum can be slowed globally depends on a host of factors, including tougher government policies, such as levying carbon taxes, and the pace of deployment of renewable energy. Meanwhile, advocates fighting climate change are working to shatter the sense of inevitability surrounding coal.

“Pouring money into new coal plants doesn’t make a lot of sense in the 21st Century,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in an interview. “With every passing year, the writing on the wall about climate change gets more and more dire, and I think the political will to do something about it gets stronger and stronger. These grand designs of the coal industry are on the wrong side of history.”