Can coal play a part in the fight against climate change?

9 February 2014 (Last Updated February 9th, 2014 18:30)

The coal industry was recently criticised for running a coal and climate event alongside UN emissions negotiations in Poland. The Warsaw Communiqué emphasised ‘high-efficiency’ coal power technologies as a way for the sector to contribute to climate change mitigation, but without carbon capture, are they enough?

Can coal play a part in the fight against climate change?

Power plant protest

The UN's annual climate change conference is hardly a stranger to hot-tempered debates, but the most recent annual round of negotiations in Warsaw, Poland in November 2013 might rank highly for controversy. The main issue had little to do with what was taking place at the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Rather, it was a separate event elsewhere in Warsaw that ruffled feathers.

As the UNFCCC's executive secretary Christiana Figueres, Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec and delegates from around the world discussed how best to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, another summit was taking place - one that would seem to run counter to the pollution-tackling aims of the UN talks.

The industry's controversial coal and climate summit

The International Coal and Climate Summit, organised by the World Coal Association (WCA), brought the coal industry together to discuss the role that coal could play, through improved efficiency and new technologies, in the fight against climate change. But for many environmentally-minded observers, this goal was completely illogical; akin to claiming that petrol could play a role in putting out fires.

"In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan it is perverse to have the world's dirtiest polluters sharing a platform with those trying to solve the climate crisis," said Christian Aid senior climate change advisor Mohamed Adow. "The world needs to turn its back on the fossil fuels of the past, like coal, which have helped to create today's climate and instead look to the clean, renewable energy sources of the future."



A new process developed at Ohio State University could dramatically improve the fortunes of costly carbon capture methods.


Other activist groups joined the throng of disapproving voices, arguing that 'clean coal' is an ineffectual half-measure, a distraction from the development of clean, renewable energy technologies. The head of Greenpeace's COP 19 delegation Martin Kaiser called the event a "slap in the face" for those suffering as a result of climate change, and the Union of Concerned Scientists' director of strategy and policy Alden Meyer opined: "Every year countries come together at these negotiations to find a global solution to climate change, and yet our host is embracing a chief cause of the problem."

A role for coal?

The assembled coal industry, and indeed the Polish government, mounted an active defence against these entirely justified concerns. The pro-coal lobby's main argument was neatly summed up in the Warsaw Communiqué, announced by the WCA in August 2013 as a lead-in to the International Coal and Climate Summit.

"There is a misconception that the use of coal is incompatible with meeting the challenge of climate change. This is simply not true," said WCA chief executive Milton Catelin in August. "With the support of industry, governments, development banks and the international community, coal can continue to play its role in delivering on economic development goals, affordable energy and industrial growth while managing the expectations of people worldwide on climate change and other environmental challenges."

The Warsaw Communiqué represented a worldwide call for greater use of "high-efficiency, low-emissions coal combustion technologies" as a short-term emissions reduction strategy and a step along the path to more widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which involves the separation of CO2 from coal plants' flue gases and transporting it for subterranean storage at an approved site.

In the coal sector, high efficiency essentially means high heat and high pressure, as increasing these factors enables better-optimised combustion. Modern plants like Germany's BoA 2&3 power station, which reduces carbon emissions by 30% when compared with the outdated plants of the previous generation despite using lignite, the dirtiest-burning coal type, are seen by the industry as the exemplars of cutting-edge coal-fired generation. The plant's output can also be ramped up or down in response to intermittent supply from renewable sources.

""It is perverse to have the world's dirtiest polluters sharing a platform with those trying to solve the climate crisis."."

Even beyond the march of technology, there are practical reasons why coal should be part of the emissions-reduction conversation. An ideal world might have made the transition to renewables already, but the real world still relies heavily on coal as an affordable energy source for power generation and industry applications - around 70% of global steel production is dependent on coal, for example.

Countries like China and India, the world's emerging economic powerhouses, are making extensive use of coal to fuel growth, and neither they nor the Western economies are likely to break the habit overnight. Given that coal is realistically going to be part of our immediate future, shouldn't we work out a way to limit its environmental impact?

Poland: a poor advertisement for unabated coal

Poland and the coal industry want to persuade critics that cleaner-burning coal can contribute meaningfully to global emissions reduction, but damning statistics make it a tough sell. In some ways, Poland's own environmental situation is an argument against what has come to be known as 'unabated coal', meaning coal-burning power generation - no matter its efficiency - without any means for capturing released CO2.

Poland uses coal for 90% of its electricity production due to its low cost and ready local supply, but the country appears to be paying a high price in other areas. Poland's carbon emissions per capita are higher than the EU average, and according to statistics from the European Environment Agency, the country suffers from the second-highest levels of air pollution in Europe thanks to plants like the one in Elektrownia Belchatow, the second-largest lignite power station in the world and reportedly Europe's biggest single source of pollution.

Furthermore, experts argue that simply replacing older plants with more efficient models is insufficient, to say the least, if countries want to honour their pledge to limit climate change to a 2°C increase or less. On 18 November last year, while the coal and climate summit was ongoing, a group of 27 scientists from around the world signed a statement intended to debunk the coal industry-led supposition that high-efficiency coal-fired generation is a valid climate change solution, as laid out in the Warsaw Communiqué.

"Even the most efficient coal-fired power plants emit more than about 15 times the amount of CO2 per unit of electricity compared to renewable energy systems, and more than twice the amount of efficient gas-fired plants," the document reads. "It is misleading to speak about 'high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies' unless equipped with CO¬2 capture and storage."



Carbon capture and storage is currently touted as a viable strategy for reducing CO2 emissions, but recent research suggests there could be more problems than previously realised.


The overriding point of the statement is that limiting warming to 2°C essentially gives the world an emissions budget - a set amount of future emissions, beyond which the 2°C limit would become impossible - and that the continuation of unabated coal would make this objective unattainable. "We are not saying there is no future for coal, but that unabated coal combustion is not compatible with staying below the 2°C limit, if we like it or not," said Professor P.R. Shukla of the Indian Institute of Management, one of the statement's signatories.

CCS: coal's flawed 'saviour'

The statement maintains that "only coal-fired power plants that are equipped with carbon capture and storage systems can incur emissions levels below those of unabated gas plants, and therefore be considered a low carbon technology". But even in this case, the scientists concluded that gas-fired plants are better suited to CCS, as gas would require only half the CO2 to be captured and stored compared to coal-fired facilities.

In any case, CCS is an immature technology that is proving murderously difficult to roll out on the kind of scale that would see it make a major difference. The technology is expensive and unproven on a large scale, and the 'storage' part of the equation also raises the danger of creating seismic activity by storing CO2 as a dense fluid up to a kilometre under the ground. The resulting tectonic movement could potentially trigger earthquakes, which in turn could threaten the integrity of the seals on the subterranean CO2.

Daunting technical and financial challenges like these have stalled the momentum of CCS in the last few years. The UK's £1bn CCS project at Longannet power station in Scotland was shelved in 2011 over concerns about commercial viability. A study released in late 2013 confirmed the slump after finding that the number of carbon capture projects in development worldwide had dropped from 75 to 65 since 2012, surely a worrying sign for a maturing technology of such importance to the future of fossil fuel energy.

""The real world still relies heavily on coal as an affordable energy source.""

UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres provoked criticism from some environmentalists when she accepted an invitation to take time out from COP 19 and speak at the International Coal and Climate Summit in Warsaw.

While the headlines that came out of her speech may have trumpeted her assertion that coal could indeed be part of the climate change solution, she matched that statement with the need for rapid and radical change in the industry, including the closure of all sub-critical plants, the implementation of carbon capture on all new plants and the need to leave the majority of the world's remaining coal reserves in the ground.

Unfortunately, if this is what is required for the coal-fired power industry to join the transition to a low-carbon economy, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which coal's stakeholders would allow that to happen. The lure of 'business as usual' is too strong to those living in the present, despite the risk it poses to those who will live in the future.

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