Andreas Späth

The end of the Age of Coal

2016-04-25 11:36

Andreas Wilson-Späth

In many ways, coal is the stuff that’s gotten us to where we are today, warts and all. It kick-started the industrial revolution, powering the steam engines in the mines, locomotives, ships and factories that propelled so-called progress.

Exploiting massive deposits of fossilised plant material all around the globe, we started feeding growing numbers of coal-fired power stations to generate electricity.

King Coal has propped up economies, delivered incredible financial wealth to some and enabled our modern way of life.

It’s also to blame for much of the trouble we find ourselves in right now. By burning mountains of coal and pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we’ve forcefully inserted ourselves into the planet’s carbon cycle, throwing out of sync the global climate system in ways we can’t yet fathom. The eminent American climate scientist James Hansen has called coal the “greatest threat to civilisation”.

Given this history, we should celebrate any suggestion that the end of the Age of Coal is nigh. The writing is definitely on the wall – here are just a few recent developments that suggest that the coal industry is running out of steam:

- In January, Arch Coal, the second largest coal miner in the USA filed for bankruptcy, followed this month by Peabody Energy, the biggest American coal producer and the largest privately-owned coal company in the world (only the state-run Coal India is bigger). They’re among more than 20 major coal firms that have gone belly-up in the last two years. Many others are neck-deep in debt.

- In March, Scotland’s last coal-fired power station was closed down on the back of very strong developments in the local renewable energy scene, making Scotland coal-free for the first time in 115 years. The UK as a whole plans to mothball its last coal plant by 2025.

- Also in March, Oregon enacted a law that will end the use of coal for electricity generation in the US state by 2040.

- In 2014, China gobbled up over half of the total global coal output and while its demand remains enormous, the country’s coal consumption has peaked, falling by 5.7% last year. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimates that worldwide coal consumption peaked in 2013.

- Globally, more than twice as much money was invested in new renewable energy projects than in new coal-fired power stations last year.

- In 2015, only two major coal-burning countries registered an increase in coal consumption: India and Australia.

- The US Bureau of Land Management has recently enacted a long-term moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal land. Coal companies stand accused of having cheated American taxpayers out of more than US$3 billion for their share of extracting coal wealth out of government-owned land.

- An international campaign encouraging institutional investors to withdraw their money from the fossil fuel sector is gaining traction and hurting the coal industry. In one recent example, following the parliament of Norway’s decision to stop supporting companies which derive more than 30% of their revenues from coal, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the biggest in the world at US$864 billion, has excluded 52 coal-related businesses from future investments.

For those of us who believe that the future is renewable, all of this is fantastic news, but we shouldn’t underestimate the powerful vested interests behind the coal industry and their ability to prolong the survival of their toxic product.

As South Africans, we need look no further than the gigantic Kusile and Madupi coal power stations (in Mpumalanga and Limpopo respectively) which Eskom and the government are imposing on us, or the Gupta’s, who’ve just acquired Optimum Coal Holdings from Glencor for a cool R2.15 billion.

While plans for many new coal-fired electricity plants are being shelved, plenty of these monstrosities are still being built. Globally, the International Energy Agency only expects cleaner sources of energy to overtake coal by 2030. We can only hope that that’s not too late.

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

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