Andreas Späth

Coal – alive and kicking

2015-10-05 10:27

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Sadly, reports of the demise of coal as a source of energy have been greatly exaggerated. It’s been powering the wheels of industry ever since Thomas Newcomen fired up his first steam engine to pump water out of an English coal mine in the early 18th century and it remains the cheap and dirty go-to fuel to this day.

Some people are even suggesting that coal is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, with consumption growing in industrialised as well as developing countries.

In South Africa, we certainly remain enamoured with the stuff. The giant power station twins of Medupi in Limpopo and Kusile in Mpumalanga are scheduled to be operating at full capacity within the next two or three years. Another coal-fired power plant, complete with its own mine, is on the cards for construction in Colenso in northern KwaZulu-Natal and yet another new coal mine is being proposed in a protected area in Mpumalanga.

What keeps the global coal industry alive? Subsidies.

In September, a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the world’s major industrial and industrialising countries are spending as much as $200bn a year on propping up coal and its fossil fuel siblings oil and natural gas.

And that may be a severe underestimate. Others suggest that in 2013, pre-tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amounted to about $550bn worldwide and “that one ton of CO2 receives, on average, more than $150 in subsidies”.

This continued financial support for an outdated, climate-changing technology comes in a year that may turn out to be the hottest on record and at a time of mounting popular support for a radical disinvestment from fossil fuels around the planet. It comes at a time when air pollution, much of it due to the burning of coal, is killing thousands of people prematurely not just every year, but every day. And perhaps most perversely, it comes at a time when studies suggest that we have the technological wherewithal to generate all of the energy we need – 100% of it, worldwide, and not just for electricity, but for transportation, heating and everything else as well – using only clean, renewable sources (and no nuclear power) by 2050. Go figure!

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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