UK prime minister Boris Johnson has caught up with the climate science of 30 years ago, now saying:
We know what must be done to limit global warming – consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.
Of course, the statements and choices of politicians have a tendency to diverge.
The Government of Canada has issued a statement on thermal coal (the kind burned for heat and electricity, as opposed to metallurgical coal used in steel production):
The continued mining and use of coal for energy production anywhere in the world is not environmentally sustainable and does not align with the Government of Canadaâ€™s commitments, both domestically and internationally, with respect to combatting climate change. Accordingly, the Government of Canada considers that any new thermal coal mining projects, or expansions of existing thermal coal mines in Canada, are likely to cause unacceptable environmental effects. This position will inform federal decision making on thermal coal mining projects.
They don’t exactly say that all new coal projects will be blocked (still less production and exports from existing projects), but they do add:
The statement indicates that the Government considers that these projects are likely to cause unacceptable environmental effects within federal jurisdiction and are not aligned with Canadaâ€™s domestic and international climate change commitments. Accordingly, this position will inform federal decision making on thermal coal mining projects.
The Pembina Institute is calling the announcement “fully aligned with global climate action.”
Other sources note that this may lead to the cancellation of Coalspur Mines’s Vista mine expansion in Alberta.
The Guardian is reporting that G20 countries have tripled their subsidies for coal:
The figures, published in a report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and others, show that Japan is one of the biggest financial supporters of coal, despite the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, having said in September: â€œClimate change can be life-threatening to all generations â€¦ We must take more robust actions and reduce the use of fossil fuels.â€ The annual G20 meeting begins in Japan on Friday.
China and India give the biggest subsidies to coal, with Japan third, followed by South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia and the US. While the UK frequently runs its own electricity grid without any coal power at all, a parliamentary report in June criticised the billions of pounds used to help to build fossil fuel power plants overseas.
The material from the Overseas Development Institute being reported on is online: G20 coal subsidies: tracking government support to a fading industry. The executive summary explains: “G20 governments continue to support coal through US$27.6 billion in domestic and international public finance, US$15.4 billion in fiscal support, and US$20.9 billion in state-owned enterprise (SOE) investments per year across the G20. This includes support through a wide range of instruments to prop up coal production, coal-fired power production, and other consumption of coal and coal-fired power, as well as support which is justified as a means of facilitating the transition away from coal.”
More civil disobedience against coal:
Five people boarded an empty coal barge at the Quincy Docks operated by Kanawha River Terminals in Chelyan, W.Va. and locked themselves to the boat with a banner stating â€œCoal Leaves Cancer Staysâ€. The barge was immobilized for three hours, until police removed them by 1:00 pm.
Those arrested were Ricki Draper, 21, of Greensboro, NC; Nathan Joseph, 23, New Orleans, LA; Rebecca Loeb, 24, Maynard, MA; Catherine-Ann MacDougal, 23, Rock Creek, WV; and Jacob Mack-Boll, 20, Lancaster, PA.
On May 5th, NASA climatologist James Hansen and others say they will be blocking BNSF coal trains from passing through White Rock, British Columbia. They say that they will be blocking coal trains only, allowing other freight and passenger trains to pass.
Hansen has posted a letter (PDF) about this on his website, addressed to Warren Buffett, the owner of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver is also participating.
This is encouraging: Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is calling for a ‘sweeping review’ of coal exports from his state.
Reducing fossil fuel exports seems like a promising strategy for limiting the total quantity of fossil fuels burned by humanity.
One of the reasons why humanity ought to move beyond coal as a source of energy is because coal mining is such a dangerous and unpleasant undertaking. Large numbers of people die every year from accidents and from lung disease, and many more experience serious but non-fatal health consequences.
This photo series from Boston.com does an excellent job of showing what coal mining does on a human scale.
Reporting on SaskPower’s proposed $1.24 billion project to capture and store carbon dioxide from the Boundary Dam coal power station in Saskatchewan, many news sources have described the technology as ‘clean coal’.
There is no such thing.
Even if a power plant could be built that separates 100% of the carbon dioxide from its emissions and then buries them forever, there will still be lots about coal that is far from clean. There is coal mining, which kills thousands of people a year and contaminates land and water supplies. There are the particulate emissions from coal plants, which cause many human deaths. There are other toxic emissions from coal plants, including mercury, radioactive materials, and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (which cause acid rain and other problems). There is toxic coal ash that is left over after combustion, and which many countries store in sub-standard ways.
Even if climate change were not a problem, we would want the world to be moving away from toxic, dangerous, dirty coal. That said, given that countries like China and the United States have large coal reserves and that there is strong political pressure to keep burning the stuff, it does seem sensible to allow coal power companies to develop and deploy CCS technology, provided that it can be shown to be safe and effective. It is the companies and the people buying power who should pay for the deployment of such technology, however, since they are the ones who are harming everyone else with toxic and greenhouse gas pollution.