Dear Coal: it’s not you, it’s me…

End of the line?
End of the line?

Ariana Mozafari, OECD Environment Directorate

The OECD is calling it quits with an era of coal.

On 3 July, Secretary-General Angel Gurría gave a lecture at the London School of Economics entitled, “Climate: what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what we can do about it – six months to COP21”. He discussed the usual mitigation tactics that royal family members and celebrities are jumping onto: rewiring the economy, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, financing investments in green infrastructure, and aligning contradictory policies to complement the climate effort.

He also, however, discussed one issue in unprecedentedly stark terms for an international body: Gurría said governments need to be seriously skeptical about new coal, which is a primary energy source that many OECD members rely upon.

The Secretary-General pointed his finger at unabated coal power generation as one of the biggest challenges to reducing global emissions to stay within a 2°C target, the agreed climate change threshold to avoid potentially dangerous consequences. Gurría said that coal was usually the least heavily taxed of all fossil fuels, and yet, looking at the way we’re going through coal right now, will result in more than 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere between now and 2050. That’s around half of the remaining carbon budget to stay within our 2°C target.

“The IEA expects global demand for coal to continue to grow in the near term, which would result in a disastrous 4°C plus trajectory,” said an impassioned Gurría. “We cannot continue building coal-fired plants simply because we have been doing so for the last 150 years.”

Coal is also an attractive energy source for developing countries that perhaps don’t have natural gas reserves waiting to be harvested or the financial and technical means to develop renewable sources of energy. But Gurría argued that coal is not cheap if you count all the costs it causes such as land disturbance, contamination of water sources, air pollution, damage to ecosystems and impacts on the health and life expectancy of miners. In the case of developing countries, Gurria called on the support of richer nations: “If the only thing separating coal from cleaner alternatives is a purely financial gap then we need to mobilise climate finance to bridge it.”

Media outlets buzzed over Gurría’s strong words on coal. Alex Kirby from Climate News Network said that Gurría was an “unlikely source” to make a case against coal, as he is the head of an organisation “representing wealthy nations that relied on coal for 32 per cent of electricity generation last year.”

Other media outlets praised the head of the OECD for going beyond the role of a “club” for the world’s richest countries to making firm recommendations against this particular energy source.

However, some are criticizing the OECD’s failure to crack down on all fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. “What about gas?” asked Tristan Edis from Climate Spectator. Fiona Harvey from The Guardian also cited the U.S.’s recent boom in shale gas as the reason coal is more tempting than ever with its lower prices.

This strong stance on coal is complementary to the huge media attention climate change has been attracting recently, due to support from high-profile figures from the entertainment industry, non-profit sector and international organisations. The buzz seems to only keep growing as the UN’s 21st Conference of Parties in Paris (#COP21) nears, where countries are expected to come up with new agreements to reduce emissions and keep our planet’s temperature within the 2°C target.

If there’s one thing that the biggest oil companies in the world and the smallest startup NGO’s seem to agree on, it’s that coal is out. Although it’s not the only fossil fuel that we need to become independent from for a sustainable future, it’s finally looking like humanity is serious about cutting ties with that inconspicuous little black rock that’s causing immense damage to our planet.

Useful links

Fast facts on coal from the IEA:

  • Coal supplied 1520 mtoe of the 3292 mtoe of additional global primary energy supply from 2000 to 2012. That’s 46% of added energy.
  • 200 MW/day of new coal generation capacity was commissioned in the world in 2010-14.

Taxing Energy Use 2015 Just published by the OECD

OECD work on climate change

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