Coal is the foremost polluter on earth.
It is responsible for toxic dust pollution (smog) in many Asian metropolitan areas, making breathing difficult and causing severe health damage and premature deaths for millions of people.
In addition, it accounts for more than a quarter of global C02 emissions, 8.5 Gt of a total of 32.5 Gt per year.
It is cheap to produce and also the biggest available fossil energy resource on earth. With estimated recoverable reserves of more than one trillion tons its expected life time is more than 150 years, two to three times longer than that of oil and natural gas. That is why the power sector keeps a greedy eye on it. But it will never be possible to retrieve all fossil reserves because of the mortal consequences for global temperatures which might rise by an average 20°C, according to estimates by James Hansen.
Considering the devastating impact on human health and global climate it is inconceivable to burn more than a small fraction of these reserves.
Humanity therefore needs a comprehensive strategy to rapidly phase out burning coal. This should not be difficult, though the coal industry will put up a tough fight.
First, the USA is in the process of phasing out the use of coal, thanks to which its C02 emissions keep falling for the first time ever. Shale gas has been the major driver behind this trend.
Second, less than a dozen countries are directly concerned. Indeed, ten countries account for 85 per cent of global coal-fired 02 emissions.
By focusing on USA, China, India, Australia, EU, Korea, South Africa the problem would be largely solved.
The recipe would be simple: establish strict C02 efficiency standards for new and existing coal-fired power plants.
The USA is showing the way. It is about to impose a new efficiency standard allowing only 0.5 kg C02/kWh for new coal-fired power plants.
Even most advanced technologies like “high efficiency low emissions” seem unable to achieve this standard. With its entry into force new coal-fired power plants are therefore unlikely to be built.
Its application to existing power plants is of secondary importance. Unless these introduce carbon capture and storage which is unproven and expensive, they will have no alternative but to shut down operations within a time frame open for negotiations, say 5-10 years.
China, the next biggest climate polluter through coal-fired power plants, should find inspiration in the US example. It looks desperately for means to fight carbon particle pollution in its major metropolitan areas, but has not yet focused on C02 emissions.
Thanks to its vast shale gas resources it can afford to ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants or fix efficiency standards that would make them economically uninteresting. Both methods require political courage. Consultation with the USA would be helpful.
The EU should rapidly introduce US-like efficiency standards to stop additional coal-fired power plants from being built and a time frame in which very inefficient existing ones should be closed.
But it should also take the initiative for convening a meeting of all countries whose electricity generation is still largely based on coal.
This approach, which is simpler than alternatives like coal-taxes or minimum coal prices, should rapidly lead to joint action by the major “coal polluters” and, possibly, set a precedent for innovative methods of tackling climate pollution.
Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 9/10/2013