Extreme weather highlights coal’s toxic legacy


Both the direct and indirect impacts of coal power have been tragically highlighted across India, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar and Vietnam in the last week, with heavy monsoonal rains and flooding across the region taking dozens of lives so far, and, in Vietnam, flooding multiple coal mine and power plant sites, threatening the Ha Long Bay UNESCO world heritage area. Many people have been driven from their homes in Cam Pha City due to the collapse of a coal ash waste pond, with the spill flooding communities with toxic waste and threatening Ha Long Bay. The historic rainstorm has also seen five Vietnamese coal carriers sink, and one run aground off the coast of China. The incidents are a fresh demonstration of the heavy direct toll coal has on the world’s poor and the environment; but as coal mining and coal-fired power is a known driver of climate change – which is manifesting in increasingly frequent and destructive extreme weather events – it also shows that its indirect impacts are also contributing to its direct ones.

Key Points

  • Coal is the number one driver of climate change, and coal disasters stemming from extreme weather events are on the rise. The more coal the world burns, the warmer the world gets, and the more frequent and intense extreme weather events become. While it is difficult to attribute any given storm directly to climate change, burning coal means more greenhouse gasses, which means a warmer and wetter climate (or drier, depending on the region). Monsoonal rains are expected to increase as global average temperatures do, and with temperatures now having passed 1DegC of average warming climate impacts are already being felt, first and foremost by the world’s poor.
  • Whether Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, it is not worth risking pristine world heritage areas and their huge contributions to tourism for a cheap and nasty fuel when there are better, cheaper, safer alternatives available now. Ha Long Bay is surrounded by 5,736 hectares of open pit coal mines, which are now flooded, and more rain is on the way. Not only does the spill threaten a world heritage icon and hugely popular tourist destination with sludge runoff, the focus on centralised coal for energy also means Vietnam risks running out of fuel within two weeks given its mines are flooded – a problem that would not exist with solutions such as decentalised wind energy.


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Key quotes

  • “Waterkeeper Alliance knows from first hand experience around the world that coal mining and generation sites are ‘monster waste generators’ of the worst kind. These coal waste facilities are ticking time bombs if they are not properly constructed to withstand large rainfall events, which are already increasing in frequency, duration and intensity in line with climate science predictions.” – Clean and Safe Energy Campaign Manager for Waterkeeper Alliance, Donna Lisenby
  • “Floodwaters flowing from open pit coal mines likely contain a slurry of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and lead, as well as other harmful substances. So, in addition to the usual harms that may immediately follow severe flooding such as traumatic injuries, outbreaks of waterborne disease, or death, the floods around Quang Ninh carry the potential to exact permanent damage to the developing nervous systems of children which are uniquely vulnerable to these toxic elements.” – Instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School, Dr. Aaron Bernstein
  • “Thousands of Australians visit Ha Long Bay each year, it’s famed beauty and limestone formation and scenic beauty . This is a human tragedy attended by an ecological disaster in the making. It is another coal based environmental disaster. This is a subset of the global disaster of climate change which has no bigger driving force than coal. With a much more direct potential damage to one of the world heritage coastal ecosystems of Ha long Bay.” – Former Senator and Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown
  • “In general globally we need to wean ourselves off coal. There is a huge social cost to coal and a huge social cost to fossil fuels … if you want to be able to breathe clean air. [T]here are more than 1 billion people today who have no access to energy. If they all had access to coal-fired power tomorrow their respiratory illness rates would go up, etc, etc … We need to extend access to energy to the poor and we need to do it the cleanest way possible because the social costs of coal are uncounted and damaging, just as the global emissions count is damaging as well.” – World Bank climate change envoy, Rachel Kyte
  • “We know from history what happens when a business or a government sets its face against a change that is coming anyway. It’s usually not the politicians or the chief executives who end up at the unemployment office. Leadership mistakes are worn by people who are least at fault for the bad decisions: the workers, their families and the communities that depend on them. Stranded assets are a terrible waste, but stranded communities are a human tragedy – and both should be avoided at all costs.” – Former head of the National Australia Bank, Cameron Clyne

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