A Future for Clean Coal?
Nearly two years after Barack Obama spearheaded the COP21 climate accord and just over five months after his successor announced the United States would withdraw from it, Donald Trump cast a long shadow over the UN climate negotiators who came together for the COP23 climate change conference in Bonn. At the first major global climate talks since Trump took office, the new sheriff in Washington made it clear that the fight between green energy – solar, wind, hydro and nuclear and fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas and shale – is far from over.
Trump’s envoys to Bonn may have been the most visible sceptics in attendance, but their presence alone does not entirely explain why policymakers the world over aren’t rushing to create fully “renewable” energy grids. The British and Canadian “Powering Past Coal” alliance unveiled at the end of the COP23 is seen as a rebuke to Trump – but China, India, Germany, and Russia, which are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, are also conspicuously absent.
It’s unlikely any of those countries will sign up soon. The global economy, for the most part, still relies on the traditional fuels that make up 80% of the global energy mix. Even where green energy plays a prominent role, campaigners can’t agree on what “green” means. Jean-Luc Mélenchon may want France to abandon nuclear power entirely, but his countrymen will never follow Germany down that road. The Swedes voted in a 1980 referendum to close all nuclear stations; they still rely on 10 nuclear reactors for more than 40 per cent of all energy, and decided just last year to allow for more.
No one has so far worked out how to move people and goods without using fossil fuel energy. Voters in Western democracies want to be able to reliably switch on their lights, turn up their heating or air-conditioning, start their cars, get on buses, and order from Amazon. Denizens of emerging markets and the developing world want to be able to generate power without having to burn noxious fuels in their homes.
One of the most bitter energy battlegrounds at the COP23 may have been the Trump administration’s commitment to coal, but the US was hardly the only advocate in the room. Many of the most populous nations in the world – China, India, and Indonesia (and yes, the US) still rely on coal for at least half of their electricity generation. IEA energy analysts see a greater amount of renewable capacity coming online over the next several years, but they also acknowledge coal will remain a key energy source for decades to come. Even as public discourse in Europe takes a different tack, the amount of lignite or brown coal production used to generate electricity in EU member states has barely changed in the last 20 years.
Many of the arguments the U.S. put forward in defence of fossil fuels are voiced even more strongly in the developed world. In Africa, the challenge of providing 600 million people who have no access to energy is pushing leaders on the continent to demand the same energy rights as their richer neighbours to the north. In pursuit of electrification, they argue that the massive coal reserves of the continent should be harnessed. As Naeema Ahmed, of the London-based Africa Alternative Energy Initiative (AAEI), told the Ghana News Agency: “As a matter of urgency, countries need to look at alternative ways of accessing and using cleaner fossil fuels as well as renewable energy for economic development.”
That viewpoint has been echoed by the Africa Progress Panel (chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan), which recently produced a report backing the use of Africa’s coal reserves with other energy sources “in as cost-effective and technologically efficient manner as possible, so that no-one is left behind.” One year ago, Nigerian Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun appealed to a joint World Bank-IMF meeting by saying: “We in Nigeria have coal but we have power problems, yet we’ve been blocked because it is not green. There is some hypocrisy because we have the entire Western industrialisation built on coal energy. Now that Africa wants to use coal they deny us.”
In both the U.S. and Nigeria, critics of the international finance bodies and multilateral development banks continue to make the case for clean coal technology, pointing out that many poor countries sit on coal reserves and cannot realistically build stable energy infrastructure based on nuclear, wind, solar and other energy sources. In Bonn, chief US delegate George David Banks even raised the prospect of a “clean coal alliance” which would presumably stand in direct opposition to the Anglo-Canadian Powering Past Coal bloc.
To preserve the global drive towards reduced emissions reductions, the two sides need to find some middle ground. One way to square this circle would be to invest seriously in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, for which the EU allocated €1 billion in 2009 but of which no demonstration projects currently exist in the EU member states. Despite mistrust from environmental groups, CCS technologies are seen as indispensible for reaching the 2050 climate targets set by the Paris agreement. The Treasury Department recently changed the rules governing the financing of fossil fuel projects in developing countries, calling on the World Bank to follow suit.
While the initial batch of projects promoted across Europe ran into a variety of financial, political, or feasibility constraints in the years after the EU decided to back them, that does not mean it is time to throw in the towel. New CCS projects continue to come online in the US, non-EU members like Norway, and in Asia; in Iceland, a pilot project is now managing negative carbon emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and turning them into solid stone. If these “negative emissions” projects end up being the key to upgrading the world’s coal-fired plants without having to take them offline, they could be the key to helping poorer countries while driving global emissions down.