The Case of Coal at COP26
Here is an analysis of the fundamental role of coal as a cause of climate change and the critical points of the coal agreement reached at COP26.
By Enrico Chiogna | YPA Italy
The coal agreement reached at COP26 represents the beginning of a long negotiation path to phase out the worst of the fossil fuels. However, this agreement is lame from the start due to the defection of four of the most important coal consumers and producers, China, the US, India and Australia.
Let us look at the reasons for the importance and the critical points of this agreement, analysing the fundamental role of coal as a cause of climate change.
Yesterday’s news may seem encouraging: as reported by various international newspapers and rumours in the corridors of the conference, delegates from more than 40 countries attending COP26 in Glasgow have reached an agreement to phase out coal as a fossil energy source from their energy mix by 2030 for developed countries and 2040 for developing economies. So far so good, one could even cry miracle given the precedents, were it not for the fact that the main producers and consumers of coal, notably China, India, the United States and Australia, have decided to opt out of this.
Coal played a fundamental role in the development of the world as we know it in the West: the English First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, one of the major turning points in human history, was driven by the use of coal as a fuel for generating mechanical energy. The innovations of this period, which fed on the black stones resulting from the sedimentation of the gigantic trees of the Carboniferous (nomen omen!), promised unexpected and astonishing possibilities for replacing human labour.
They were therefore exploited.
In the course of time, the use of fossil fuels has enabled humanity to enjoy much better material living conditions than its ancestors. Thus, since the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution, mankind’s fascination with coal has shown no limits for at least 200 years.
Despite technological innovations and the discovery of new energy sources, starting with the black gold of the 20th century and continuing with the development of low-carbon energy technologies at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, coal currently accounts for more than a quarter of global energy production and is still the largest source of electricity generation in relative terms.
The phasing out of coal seems a long way off, although in absolute terms, a plateau seems to have been reached in the last decade as awareness of its role in the production of climate-changing gases has slowly been raised.
THE EFFECTS OF COAL ON THE CLIMATE
Coal is the most damaging source of energy for the climate and human health, and not only because of its carbon dioxide emissions, which are 164 times higher than solar energy (which is also cheaper) for the same energy production. In fact, it is estimated that the production of one TWh – Terawatt-hour, the unit of measurement of electricity that you find on your electricity bill, multiplied by one billion, representing the average annual electricity consumption of 27,000 European citizens – of electricity from coal generates 1230 times more premature deaths than from solar energy and 350 times more premature deaths than from the much-vaunted nuclear energy. These estimates take into account both deaths generated by accidents in the various stages of energy production and deaths generated by air pollution, which are prevalent in the case of coal.
If we consider total emissions of carbon dioxide, the main climate-changing gas, over the last 170 years, coal is certainly responsible for the relative majority of these, given its extensive and continuous use over two centuries and its high carbon intensity.
Ça va sans dire that attempts to reduce coal use, given the negative sides and the availability of alternatives, have been numerous but have almost always met with poor results: reliance on national plans caused by poor international coordination and the lobbying of the coal industries in the main producer countries – see for example capital Australia, which has enormous potential in solar energy production but is stuck in the coal vicious circle by political lobbying pressure – have led to slow and insignificant developments.
Moreover, none of them have ever been motivated by ecological or ethical issues but mainly by grey economic assessments that are taking us to the brink of catastrophe. Paradoxically, for the last 10 years renewables have been the cheapest source of energy for electricity production and are finally gaining ground on fossil fuels, despite the fact that fossil fuel companies receive trillions of dollars every year to ensure continuous energy production (which is not feasible, for example, with solar and wind power), choking the planet with the CO2 they produce.
The COP has never shone for the efficiency of its results, and it is important to underline the fact that for the first time an international agreement for the gradual elimination of coal has been signed, putting a fundamental and complex issue on the negotiating table, given man’s irresistible fascination for carbon despite it has polluted and killed so much.
It is impossible, however, not to be highly critical of the actors who scuttled this agreement, given that it does not include the main producers and users of coal (each of whom would in any case have plenty of room for manoeuvre to rely on other renewable energy sources), and of the choice of words, given that no binding targets are envisaged.
Thus, although it is at least a starting point, the agreement lacks substance and operational lines. For the time being, factually, this agreement is waste paper.
There are, however, grounds for hope: a few days ago the G20 countries defined an agreement to eliminate foreign investment in the coal industry (accepted also by China) and the large participation of emerging economies in the Glasgow agreement could indicate their intention to base their development on different bases from the Western one, which in its opulence has ended up intoxicating the entire globe.