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‘Big Coal’ damage to the environment exposed

The Big Coal polluters are actually increasing, rather than decreasing. (AFP)
The Big Coal polluters are actually increasing, rather than decreasing. (AFP)
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17 Mar 2021 02:03:20 GMT9
17 Mar 2021 02:03:20 GMT9

Anthony Rowley

So-called ‘Big Oil’ (oil majors and cartels) have long been blamed for many of the world’s ills, among which contributing to air pollution ranks high. But the real villain when it comes to global warming and climate change is ‘Big Coal,’ whose damage to the environment is much greater, some argue.

With the approach of the November UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) climate summit in Glasgow, the spotlight is being turned increasingly on global warming caused by coal-burning power stations – in places such as  China, India, Indonesia, Russia and even the US and Japan especially.

British peer Lord David Howell is an active campaigner in the upper house of the British parliament (House of Lords) and beyond to slow down if not actually stop what he calls the “gigantic on-rolling machine” of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal burning, before disaster strikes.

The essence of his argument is simple but powerful. The Big Coal polluters are actually increasing, rather than decreasing, their investment in coal-fired power stations and for valid economic and social reasons they are set to continue doing so despite public pledges to the contrary.

“The basic problem is that while 64 countries have been reducing emissions, at least 130 have been increasing them, leading to a worldwide rise when global totals should be falling substantially each year from now on. Unless people focus on this, catastrophic failure in the climate battle is certain,”

Many of the “green” initiatives, by European governments especially, are merely tinkering with the problem of global warming while they turn a blind or uncomprehending eye to the way in which coal-fired power plants continue to ravage the climate, Howell said in an interview with Arab News.

The solution to this “elephant in the room” problem is not to deny developing nations the right to raise living standards through the provision of electric power supplies but instead to fund massive research into bringing down the cost of carbon capture at power stations, he argued.

It is technologically possible but will be very expensive and it will require a massive shift in investment away from virtuous-sounding “green” l and renewable energy projects and into tackling the problem of global warming at its source in the Big Coal countries.

The IMF is also among those flagging the perils of coal. “Coal is a major contributor to pollution and climate change, accounting for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions,” the IMF said in a blog.” When burned to generate heat or electricity, coal is 2.2 times as carbon intense as natural gas.”

Such warnings seem to go largely unheeded and Lord Howell fears this could again be the case at COP26, the latest summit of the main decision-making body of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention or UNFCCC to which nearly 200 countries belong.

“They’re going to talk a great deal about everyone pledging to reduce their carbon emissions while shutting their eyes to the fact that last time they pledged [to cut emissions] only 64 countries performed while the others were actually doing the opposite.”

While the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic produced a sharp drop in global output during 2020, a range of institutions including those such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have warned that carbon emissions will likely pick up again from now.

They rose 16 per cent in the ten years up to 2019 (when the pandemic first appeared) taking them, as Howell says ” ever further away from the goals of the Paris Agreement” (the UN Framework Convention on Climate on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance, signed in 2016 by 195 nations).

In order to “get back on the Paris path of a rise a no more than 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 degrees) above pre-industrial levels, requiring a carbon-neutral world by 2050 emissions would have to be falling by at least 7.6 percent a year to at least the next ten years,” says Howell. “This is just not going to happen unless some realities are faced.”

The biggest single source of carbon emissions is coal-burning which Howell says accounts for some 46 percent of all emissions, although that figure could be as high as 50 percent or more, he adds.

“Renewable power costs (solar, wind, hydro, etc.) may be falling dramatically, oil and gas investments are being boycotted, electric vehicles heavily encouraged; and energy bills for consumers kept sky high (although with growing popular unrest,” Howell noted in a recent column in the Japan Times.

“Yet annual global emissions keep adding to the global greenhouse around us when it is drastic subtraction that is needed. None of this may be welcome or popular news at the present time but the hard facts are rolling down the road toward us and soon they will have to be faced.

“The question that hangs in the air is what contribution can anyone make? The Paris accord requires a global reduction of 7.6 per cent (although some say 10.6 per cent) every year right through the 2030s in order to arrive at zero net emissions or carbon neutrality by 2050.”

Who is driving the Big Coal movement? “They are governments in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and China and even, despite its good intentions, Japan who are all still building coal fired power stations,” says Howell. “These are countries where there is still the possibility of cutting a vast amount of carbon emissions.”

But “can you go to the Indians and say you’ve got about 100 million people who haven’t got any electricity at all, your economy depends upon cheap energy and your way to get that is to build coal-fired power stations’ but then tell them that they can’t if the world is to meet CO2 emission limits?”

“Can you go to the Chinese and say, ‘you’re doing wonderfully well on the road to carbon neutrality by 2060’ when they are in fact still building rows of coal-fired power stations? The difference between reality and what they say is happening are two completely different things.”

The “core question,” says Howell, “is can we do something about the carbon coming from carbon emissions, and that comes down to carbon capture, re-usage and storage? It means regarding CO2 as fuel, which it is although scientists say we’re only just getting onto its potential.”

“Can we do that at a cost which countries can afford – that is the central question. Otherwise everyone is being totally misled.” European and other nations can go blue in the face with “greening” but it won’t make an atom of difference to checking the rising or plateauing carbon emissions”

What is needed is new “Marshall Plan or Manhattan Project” scale research into carbon capture and implementation, funded internationally, Howell says. “But how much of that kind of courage is there around?” he asks rhetorically.

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