An international group of 27 prominent energy and climate scientists are calling for a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants, a policy they say has become a global imperative if “climate catastrophe” is to be avoided this century.
Their call comes amid renewed efforts by coal and power utility lobbies “to portray 'high efficiency low emissions coal combustion' as a climate solution.” Global carbon emissions are set to hit another new record high this year, according to a report released earlier this week as UN climate treaty negotiators meet in Warsaw. Ironically, taking place at the same time in the Polish capital is the Coal and Climate Summit.
The assertion that coal combustion to produce electricity should be considered a “climate-friendly” power technology flies in the face of the facts, all good judgment, and, needless to say, any semblance of adhering to the “precautionary principle.” Agreeing to it would set humanity and ecosystems around the world firmly on course for global warming of 6°C (10.8°F) , according to the scientists.
That's three to four times the 1.5-2°C cap (compared to pre-industrial era levels) and climate warming threshold world leaders agreed to at the UN's climate treaty negotiations in Cancun in 2010.
On the road to climate catastrophe
The world's known coal reserves contain more than 2,000 gigatons (Gt) of CO2. Burning or combusting these reserves “would dramatically overshoot the remaining global carbon budget of about 1,000 gigatons CO2. This comes on top of oil and gas reserves accounting for more than 1600 gigatons,” the scientists highlight in a press release.
“The current global trend of coal use is consistent with an emissions pathway above the IEA's 6°C scenario. That risks an outcome that can only be described as catastrophic, beyond anything that mankind has experienced during its entire existence on earth,” the scientists state.
“The IEA's medium-term coal market report (IEA, 2012) projects a further expansion of coal use that is even higher than IEA's own 6DS scenario for 6°C warming in the long-term,” they elaborate.
“The 6DS scenario assumes around 4°C warming by 2100 (Schaeffer and Van Vuuren, 2012). As the Secretary General of the OECD warns: 'Without CCS, continued reliance on coal-fired power is a road to disaster. (OECD, 2013)”
"We are not saying there is no future for coal", added Professor P.R. Shukla of the Indian Institute of Management, "but that unabated coal combustion is not compatible with staying below the 2°C limit, if we like it or not."
Following is a short list of the main points of the climate and energy scientists' statement:
- Unabated coal is not a low carbon technology
- Avoiding dangerous climate change requires about 3/4 of known fossil fuel reserves to stay underground
- Current trends in coal use are harbouring catastrophic climate change
- To keep global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial, use of unabated coal has to go down in absolute terms from now on
- Alternatives are available and affordable
- Public financing institutions and regulatory agencies are reining in unabated coal, but more is needed to prevent new unabated coal to be built
False claims, Sustainable energy scenarios
The group of scientists also noted that “false claims about 'high-efficiency coal' as a low-emissions technology” were made by the World Coal Association (WCA) in their recently released Warsaw Communiqué. In it the WCA “calls for 'the immediate use of high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies as an immediate step in lowering greenhouse gas emissions."
Contrary to such assertions, Dr Bert Metz, former Co-Chair of the IPCC’s Working Group on Climate Change Mitigation, stated,
"New or retrofitted coal plants without CO2 capture and storage will have a life time of 40-50 years. We need to dramatically reduce emissions over the next 40 years. That is not possible with unabated coal."
“Alternatives to fossil fuels are already available and affordable. It is therefore up to the coal industry to show that coal-fired plants with CCS can compete with other zero carbon options."
The scientists welcomed the growing number of prominent multilateral and international financing institutions and regulatory agencies, including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the U.S. Ex-Im Bank, to curtail or “rein in unabated coal.” Much more action is needed, and now, however, they added.
As Professor William Moomaw of the Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA pointed out:
"The trend of future coal use is changing rapidly. The World Bank, US development assistance and the US Import-Export Bank will no longer finance or support new unabated coal power plants internationally, except in rare cases.
“The United States Environmental Protection Agency has proposed carbon dioxide emission standards that rule out unabated coal power plants altogether. The European Investment Bank and Scandinavian countries have taken similar steps."
Genuinely low-emissions alternative, renewable energy technology are readily available, competitive with fossil fuels, and continue to decline in cost, the scientists highlight. This stands out in stark contrast to trends in fossil fuels, which are increasingly costly in narrowly defined dollars-and-cents terms, and much more expensive over the long-term when their environmental, health and other socioeconomic costs, such as military interventions, are factored into the equation.
In their statement, the scientists lay out a range of alternative energy and emissions scenarios:
For more on this topic, check out the scientists' full statement on coal
Main and featured image credit: Shel Israel, courtesy flickr