World set for untimely resurgence of dirty old coal – Energy experts


The International Energy Agency (IEA) has announced that if present trends continue we will experience an antiquated and dangerous resurgence of coal-burning to meet energy demands. According to their mid-term projections, by 2017 coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – will nearly overtake oil as the world’s top energy source. IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven says that ‘the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared to today – equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined’. The news carries many negative implications for the state of public health and our climate. Medical organisations have warned that millions of deaths each year have been linked to air pollution that occurs as a result of burning dirty fossil fuels such as coal. A diverse range of international institutions, including the World Bank, have warned that we must take urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop low carbon energy sources, if we want to limit the impacts from dangerous levels of climate change (potentially +4°C) within this century.

The IEA say that growth in global coal can be reduced if governments undertake a ‘policy backlash’ which would entail establishing a ‘meaningful carbon price’, to properly incentivise low carbon, clean energy investments and development. European governments are in a position to take positive steps in this direction. They, along with other groups, are also in a position to put pressure on continental coal addicts Poland and Turkey to reign in their planned development of dirty energy.


MT @IEA: Coal’s share of global energy mix to continue rising, with coal closing in on oil as top energy source by 2017


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Key Points

  • The International Energy Agency (IEA) say that by 2017 dirty coal will almost overtake oil as the world’s primary energy source. Medical practitioners assert that this is rapid development in the wrong direction if we want to reduce the current death toll of 4.5 million per year associated with burning dirty fossil fuels, and if we wish to limit the dangerous levels of climate change projected to occur within the century.
  • The Executive Director of the IEA said that it is possible to reverse a dangerous, and antiquated coal-burning resurgence by placing a ‘meaningful’ price on carbon which would incentivise clean energy development. Unfortunately Europe is making slow progress in this direction. Last week a handful of EU countries agreed to measures that would bolster the carbon price within the stuttering European Emissions Trading Scheme, but the position of major players like Germany was and still is unclear.


The IEA expects that coal demand will increase in every region of the world except in the United States. Their latest Medium Term Coal Market report projects that China and India will lead the growth in coal consumption over the next five years. The report says that in Europe a coal resurgence has been triggered by low CO2 and high gas prices, plus a coal oversupply coming from US. However, the increasing use of renewables, retirement of coal plants, and more balanced gas and coal prices will decrease coal consumption somewhat across Europe. Nonetheless, coal demand in 2017 will be 10 million tonnes coal equivalent (mtce) higher than in 2011, as growth in Turkey and other major polluters will offset the more general decline. These projections for the next decade fly in the face of a prominent swathe of reports recently released by leading international institutions calling for urgent action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and re-double efforts to boost low carbon energy (see resources section). The costs of remaining on our current track are already excessive. The DARA climate vulnerability report – championed by medical practitioners organised against coal expansion – determines that today’s high carbon economy already costs the world $1.2 trillion per year (1.6% of global GDP) and is linked to 5 million deaths annually. 400,000 die each year due to hunger and communicable diseases aggravated by climate change, and 4.5 million deaths occur as a result of air pollution linked to dirty energy that fuels our carbon economy.

The IEA urge say that only a ‘policy backlash’ will halt the march of coal development, given the lack of support for carbon capture and storage and the fact that a US style shale gas revolution in Europe is extremely unlikely, fixing a meaningful price on carbon is the only viable option for European policy-makers. Launched in 2005, the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) is one of the key tools to combating greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively. It covers approximately 11,000 power stations and industrial plants in 30 countries, that are subject to carbon price which is theoretically supposed to stimulate investment in technology (for example energy efficiency measures) that reduces their emissions. However, it is widely recognised that the over-allocation of emissions permits and the financial crisis landed the carbon price in a trough from which it has not recovered, rendering the carbon price practically worthless and the system as a whole toothless. In order to avoid the scheme from becoming completely ineffective, the European Commission proposed to withdraw 900 million permits from the scheme in November 2012, thereby lowering the cap and raising the price of carbon. Only a handful of member states backed an EU plan to prop up carbon prices in this way – ‘backloading’ – last Thursday. The position of 18 countries, including Germany, remains unclear.

European coal consumption is expected to continue to decline, due to increasing use of renewables and the closure of a substantial number of coal fired power plants. However, a few key actors threaten to undermine European efforts to phase-out coal, and Europe must do its bit to tackle these key actors that are hampering progress. A key culprit that has made their position clear at the recent UN negotiations in Doha is Poland. With 82% of its power currently generated by burning coal, Poland has made clear its intention to lock itself into a new generation of high-emitting coal power stations – a stance that is incompatible with the requirements of the EU ETS. Furthermore, a recent undercover investigation revealed that Poland was attempting to claim free carbon credits under the EU ETS, to the value of €33 million, for a coal fired power station that does not even exist. It does not stand alone, however. Turkey also relies heavily upon coal for its power generation, and has expressed similar intentions to continue to develop a coal-intensive energy sector, with its Energy Ministry declaring 2012 as “coal year”. Additionally, both Poland and Turkey are reported to have taken a militant stance against anti-coal demonstrations within their local communities, having unleashed violent reprisals against protests to date.



IEA’s Medium-Term Coal Market Report – press releaseHuffington PostGuardianEuractivPlattsRTCC



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