Contemplating coal’s controversy at COP23

29th Nov 2017

Representing the coal industry at climate talks is never going to be an easy proposition. For many people, coal and climate action are incompatible…‘coal should be kept in the ground’. For many years we’ve been arguing that it’s the emissions that need to be kept out of the air. This is a distinction that doesn’t usually get a lot of traction at the annual climate talks…until Bonn.

 The annual UN talks are incredibly important in working out how we’re going to tackle climate change, alongside equally important challenges such as economic development, social equity and energy security. However, somewhere along the way the talks became much more polarised. Around the time of the Copenhagen talks back in 2009, when the ante was upped to such a degree that it felt as if we had two weeks to save the world, other considerations started to fall by the wayside.

 But not for everyone. Many countries have been trying to make it clear year-after-year that as much as they take the threat of climate change incredibly seriously; they take the economic development of their countries and the welfare of their people equally as seriously. Even after the landmark COP21 in Paris two years ago, when many people would ask me if this now meant the end for coal, 24 countries had actually outlined a role for coal and specifically low emission coal technologies, in meeting their Paris Agreement targets.

 This year’s talks in Bonn have been interesting. Not necessarily for the content of the negotiations themselves, which have been very technical and detailed, as the ‘rulebook’ for the Paris Agreement is worked out, but because for the first time in many years it seems as if a little of the rhetoric has been balanced by a healthy dose of reality.

 I was interested to read a story this morning with the opening line “Coal emerged as the surprise winner from two weeks of international climate talks in Germany”. While I don’t think talking about ‘winners and losers’ in this context is particularly helpful, I did leave the talks last week feeling that reality had been more evident in Bonn.

 The much-reported US event on the role of fossil fuels and nuclear energy naturally became a focal point for noisy protests. However, it was also an event, as one observer commented, which broke “into the echo chamber that conferences like this often foster”. As White House adviser David Banks said during the event: "This panel is only controversial if we choose to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the realities of the global energy system”.

 In fact, the way in which the announcement of the UK-Canada-led ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’ has been reported makes me think many people are thinking more realistically about solutions for coal. On the surface, a powerful anti-coal statement. In reality, a pledge that covers only 2% of global coal use.

 Understanding the reality of the huge role of coal in many parts of the world is not about turning our backs on climate change. It’s about saying if this is what countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, China, Japan, the Philippines…(the list goes on), are telling us about how they’re going to meet their future energy needs, then we need to make sure this use is compatible with our climate targets. This includes low emission coal technologies but ultimately has to include a massive push on carbon capture and storage.

 The role of coal in our global energy system – and, just as importantly, in industries such as steel, cement, aluminium – is an inconvenient truth. In twenty years’ time, the International Energy Agency says coal will still be the largest single source of electricity. Until we face up to this reality, we’re going to find it very difficult to meet the Paris Agreement targets. In Bonn it seemed that this message is finally starting to get through.


Originally published in LinkedIn on 20 November 2017