It really is time to wake up to the reality of increasing coal consumption and carbon emissions. This was recently addressed by Maria van der Hoeven of the IEA who gave a speech to launch the “Medium Term Coal Market Report 2013” in Paris last Monday 16th Dec. Much the same points have also made by Dieter Helm in his book “The Carbon Crunch”.
- Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure. Coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems. No fuel draws the same ire, particularly for its polluting qualities both locally and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet no fuel is as responsible for powering the economic growth that has pulled billions out of poverty in the past decades.
- Over the next six years, additional coal production capacity of a half million tonnes per annum will be added worldwide each and every day. Coal prices are also falling. Coal price in ASIA is $4/mBTU whereas LNG prices are $16/mBTU – 400% higher. Indonesia has vast coal reserves.
- More than 60% of the rise in CO2 emissions since 2000 is due to burning of coal to produce electricity and heat. This rise in emissions is occurring in ASEAN countries.
- In China, the scale of coal in the economy is simply incomparable to fuels elsewhere. Replacing coal with gas in Chinese power generation would require twice the volume of all global LNG trade. Coal therefore will continue to play an important role in economic growth and energy security worldwide.
- If just the new coal plants under development in India and Indonesia were instead to be completed using latest technology it would save as much CO2 as all the wind turbines in Europe combined. Technical subsidies by Europe to achieve this would be a far cheaper means to tackle climate change than are current policies.
Whenever you see the Keeling curve of ever increasing CO2 levels just remember that nearly 2/3 of that is due to coal burning in Asia. What can be done about it? In the short term nothing can be done and carbon emissions are sure to rise for the next few decades whatever we do in Europe. It means that Europe’s efforts to cut emissions are essentially futile. There are only two ways out of this dilemma long term:
- International carbon price. This needs to make coal artificially 3 times more expensive than it actually is to encourage a switch to gas. I don’t think there is a hope in hell of getting developing countries to agree to that – and anyway who would be the recipient of these trillions of dollars ?
- Underground gasification of coal to methane. This could halve carbon emissions and avoid air pollution but at the expense of lower yields. Only an international agreement similar to banning the use of CFCs would achieve this.
The scale of the growth in coal consumption in Asia is staggering. It really makes a mockery of Europe’s de-carbonization policies. For energy security reasons the UK should have built a couple of modern efficient coal plants just like Germany and Holland did within EU limits and thereby save on energy bills. However, Friends of the Earth stopped the Kingsnorth plant in Kent from being developed by E-on in 2009, and shortly after the UK government essentially blocked any new coal plants without CCS and introduced a stealth carbon floor tax penalizing coal further. Meanwhile any progress on CCS is essentially stalled and the UK faces power curs in 2014/2015. One reason for that is that 30-40% of the output power is needed to drive CCS !
Acknowledgement: The figures and data are taken from the IEA talk of Maria van der Hoeven.