There’s more to tackling climate change than ending coal

It’s too early to declare the end of coal, but it does seem to be waning.

Last week, official data confirmed coal use in China fell in 2014. In the southern hemisphere, Glencore has cut Australian coal production by 15%. In Europe, Greenpeace UK are pushing a recent poll suggesting the majority of British people favour phasing out coal, and the city of Oslo announced it was to divest US$7 million from its pension fund in the fuel too.

Just don’t mention all the oil and gas running through the Oslo economy.

And there’s the rub.

Environmental campaigners may hope that a push against coal will act as a sort of gateway to action on other fossil fuels. If we manage to strand this particular asset, surely we can go a similar way with the others? But it’s easy to see how an anti-coal message can serve the oil and gas industry too — distracting attention, offering a more obviously polluting scapegoat.

Not all fossil fuels are born equal. Coal has long been a bit of an ugly duckling of the energy mix. People used it, happy to dig it out the ground and burn to reap the benefits of the energy released. But they did so grudgingly, or at least through a haze of black dust.

Australian PM Tony Abbott may have infamously declared “coal is good for humanity”. Peabody Energy may have tried the line that coal is key to unlocking global energy poverty. But it’s hard to see the clarity of this message through all the smoke. Their words easily choke in the lungs.

According to the World Health Organisation, 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution, of which coal plays a key part. You don’t need a worry about climate change to be wary of coal. But climate change is part of the problem. It’s partly Australia’s reliance on coal which means they have the highest per capita emissions intensity of any OECD member. Coal very easily plays the baddie however you paint it.

This can lead to an element of finger-pointing within the energy industry, especially from the gas community. The health frame and emphasis on “carbon emission” in Obama’s carbon regulations last summer reflected a focus on the well-being of black and latino children. That’s vitally important. But the framing of the speech also offered a fair bit of space for the fracking industry to remain active at least as a bridging fuel. And that’s vitally important too.

For all that the recent McGlade and Ekins paper in Nature argued that 80% of current global coal reserves should remain in the ground, they also said a third of oil and half of gas should stay there too. There is only so far that a “we’re not as polluting as coal” will take you.

Being anti-coal can serve a range of rhetorical and ideological ends. Just ask Thatcher. There were whispers of attempts to green-wash her legacy with respect to the UK mining unions when she died, but don’t forget the words north, sea and oil. We might also question pro-nuclear campaigners pushing a particular idea of “clean energy” (whatever that’s meant to be) against coal, and raise similarly sceptical eyebrows at parts of the solar industry too. None of which is to argue against either nuclear or solar, just note the way a range of agendas and rhetoric may piggyback on an anti-coal message.

Coal can give us light and heat in the short term, but it’s a dangerous substance to burn. Personally, I’m firmly in that 56% of British people in Greenpeace’s recent poll who want to see coal go by the early 2020s. Still, one of the many risks the fuel poses is its role as a simple way to side-step the more abstract issue of climate change and get back to more established, more obvious worries about smog. We shouldn’t let coal pollute action on climate change as well as everything else.

Written by . Published on March 4, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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