Analysis: is cleaner coal a climate change fix?

By John Parnell

The chief executive of the World Coal Association (WCA) is not impressed with the past 20 years of efforts through the UN to combat climate change. But he has the answer, more coal.

In a blog post on the WCA website Milton Catelin correctly points out that the share of coal has been growing while the share of non-fossil fuel energy has declined since 1990.

Between 1990 and 2010 coal’s share of electricity production rose from 37% to 42% while non-fossil fuels decreased from 37% to 33%.

Catelin also bemoans the lack of climate action during this period. His suggested fix, yet more coal, would surely reinforce the connection between his first observation, more coal equals no progress on climate change. He doesn’t think so.

“After almost 20 years of UN climate negotiations – with all the treaties, agreements, funding, policy measures and decisions taken over this time – power generation from non-fossil fuel sources has actually decreased,” writes Catelin.

But does all of this really stack up?

Coal makes its way from the Garzweiler coal mine in Germany to a nearby power station (Source: Flickr/Bert Kaufmann)

Let’s start with his claims about renewable energy. According to the IEA, 19.5% of global electricity was sourced from renewables in 1990 compared to 19.3% in 2009.

In absolute terms, renewables grew 2.8% a year on average during this time. Wind power grew by a factor of 13 in the last ten years alone. Nuclear energy output has slowly decreased since the turn of the century.

This has not decreased in absolute terms, only when compared to the runaway growth of coal. Much of this new coal power generation has been in China and India as their maturing economies lift people out of poverty and energy access improves.

Germany and Japan’s shift from nuclear has also seen their demand for coal rise.

If there are more renewables being installed every year, the only way their share is being reduced is if fossil fuel growth races away at a greater pace. In that respect, Catelin has accurately identified the source of the problem.


Catelin manages to look at these facts and come to the conclusion that the answer to producing low emission or ‘clean’ energy is slightly more efficient coal.

It’s a concern held at all levels. The IEA’s report released yesterday includes as one of its four policy recommendations a call for all new coal power stations to be as efficient as possible.

Progress has been mixed. In the UK and USA new regulations are seeing older coal plants close. Japan recently relaxed its own regulations on new coal plants, and as for China, the IEA told RTCC that they were as clean as possible. Which isn’t that clean.

Catelin is right to call for coal to be as efficient and as ‘clean’ as possible. But it is clear that it will not help reduce emissions in the short, medium or long term.

Wider impacts

As well as burning dirty, the mining, storing and transportation of coal is also an energy intensive and highly polluting process.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are often feted as the saviour of coal fired generation but the simple fact is that right now, it doesn’t exist in any meaningful way for large scale coal-fired electricity production. It’s a fig leaf, and a wilting one at that.

There is a clear need to generate more power as the population grows and access to energy is improved. But even the cleanest coal power is almost twice as dirty as a gas-fired equivalent.

Pursuing efficient coal power for emission reductions is like following an all fast food diet, but with sugar free sodas, as a weight loss strategy.

As well as being disastrous for the climate and environment, coal also has severe health impacts. In the EU it is estimated to create a €43bn healthcare bill.

The Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust estimates that it causes 115,000 premature deaths a year in India while the estimate for air quality related deaths in China is more than one million a year.


Realistically, new coal plants will be built in the coming years as government’s look to meet their development needs. The World Bank has continued to fund coal projects despite heavy criticism.

“We would certainly love to be able to move in the direction of having all of our investments go into renewable energy, but as I said, we’ve got to face this issue of people needing energy,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said last month.

If the world is serious about reducing emissions, coal should only be used where this development argument reigns. Ensuring that that situation never arises, that affordable renewable alternatives are available is the greater challenge.

Betting forty years of cumulative coal emissions against the possibility of CCS becoming widespread – and affordable – is not worth the risk.

While it’s understandable the head of a trade body wants to stick up for his members, it is clearly misleading to claim coal is anything but a dirty and polluting fuel, albeit one that has enabled many countries to develop over the past 200 years.

Sadly for the coal industry and for the environment, clean coal does not exist, and cleaner coal just isn’t good enough.

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