Coal industry paints itself as a hero on poverty, ignores climate and health impacts


As the international coal market turns, investors flee future stranded assets and both courts and communities roadblock risky developments such as the huge Alpha coal mine in Queensland; the coal industry is attempting to greenwash itself as the only hope for poverty alleviation in the developing world. In the US, the industry has hired the world’s largest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, to push a new “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign that claims coal is the only energy source cheap enough to pull people out of poverty, and the same messaging is now being deployed by the Minerals Council of Australia. While it is true that declining demand has hit coal prices hard, renewables are now cheaper than new coal, and make far more sense for developing nations, such as Africa. Their distributed, highly scalable nature, and the fact they do not lock poor countries into a fuel purchase cycle, or a future of increasing climate and health threats make renewables far more suitable than coal for fighting poverty. As last week’s IPCC report outlines, the impacts of climate change, largely caused by fossil fuel use, is hitting the world’s poorest people hardest. The World Bank no longer invests in new coal-fired power stations for exactly this reason.



  • MT @sunriseoz: Why it’s a complete myth that Australian #coal is a poverty-fighting saviour for India.

Key Points

  • The coal industry’s fortunes are rapidly declining, and it is hoping to revitalise its profits by locking poor, developing nations into fossil fuels under the guise of poverty alleviation. It is attempting to greenwash its image as the only hope for poor people, and has hired one of the world’s largest and most infamous PR companies to help it do so.
  • No amount of rebranding will change the fact that coal is one of the dirtiest and most damaging fuel sources in the world. Burning coal comes with huge impacts on health and the global climate – both of which hurt the world’s poor disproportionately, and hold back development.
  • If the world is to stay under 2DegC and avoid dangerous climate change, global coal use must be phased out as soon as possible. The coal industry’s attempts to expand its market in developing countries runs directly counter to this goal and, if successful, will derail both global attempts to address climate change and any progress on poverty alleviation.


The coal industry faces a future of declining fortunes. In Australia alone recently, Rio Tinto has had two appeals against the blocking of its controversial Warkworth open-cut coal mine extension shot down; the huge Alpha mine project in Queensland is facing cancellation if it cannot comply with strict new environmental conditions; “coal” is nowhere to be found in the draft 30-year plan for Queensland’s future;  investors are increasingly jumping ship from major coal projects due to the lack of social license for them,  China’s changing appetite, and the deteriorating situation on the international market.

The situation is similarly fluctuating between unfortunate and dire for the coal industry globally, and it is now trying to pull a rabbit out of its hat by bringing public relations heavyweight Burson-Marsteller into its corner and pushing the argument that coal is necessary to pull people out of poverty in the developing world.

US coal giant Peabody Energy hired the PR firm, which has a history spinning for the likes of the tobacco industry and the Union Carbide following the Bhopal disaster, to head its new “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign, which argues that coal is the fuel of choice to pull 3.5 billion people out of poverty because of its supposed low cost.

Of course, externalities such as health and climate impacts are not factored into the cost of coal, and both have substantial and disproportionate impacts on people in the developing world. The World Bank, after commissioning two reports about climate change and its impact on developing countries, changed its policies to stop lending to coal-fired power generation precisely because burning more coal causes climate change, further exacerbating poverty.

Even without factoring in externalities, in many cases renewables are already cheaper than new coal, and have been so in Australia for a while. According to the International Energy Association, any country can cost-effectively reach high levels of renewable generation, and it makes far more sense for developing nations to leapfrog dirty, fossil fuel technology to clean, renewable sources – as they have done with telecommunications in Africa, where people have bypassed landlines in favour of mobiles.

This leapfrogging has happened because most African countries did not have the funds to build the infrastructure required to string phone lines around the country, and the situation is similar with the electricity grid.

Renewables have a better chance to fight poverty in developing countries as they can be deployed in a distributed fashion where they are needed most, first; they can be scaled with the grid as usage and wealth improves; and they do not lock developing nations into a dirty fuel cycle, forcing them to import and burn fuel. They also that ultimately increases health impacts and climate risks.

Scientists warn that in order to keep global warming to below 2degC, the use of coal must drop dramatically. The coal industry wants to expand coal use in the developing world, using poverty alleviation as an excuse, but there can be no lasting progress on poverty or climate change through increased use of fossil fuel.


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Key quotes

  • “One thing I’ve learnt from decades inside boardrooms is that, by and large, oil, coal and gas companies live in an analytical bubble, deluded about their immortality and firm in their beliefs that “renewables are decades away from competing” and “we are so cheap and dominant the economy depends on us” and “change will come, but not on my watch”. Dream on boys.” Former Greenpeace International Executive Director Paul Gilding.
  • “Burson-Marstellar has spent decades working for some of the world’s worst perpetrators of human rights and environmental abuses. So Burson-Marsteller are well suited to help Peabody push dirty coal to the world’s poorest people, at a time when everyone from the World Bank to the U.N. are warning us climate change will hit the poor first, and hardest.” Director of the Climate Investigations Center, Kert Davies.
  • “Coal‐fired heat and power generation is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from fuel combustion today. More than three‐fifths of the rise in global CO2 emissions since 2000 is due to the burning of coal to produce electricity and heat. And we should not overlook the health problems tied to local pollution produced by coal combustion.” IEA Executive Director Maria Van der Hoeven.
  • “It seems the only certainty that King Coal will settle for is the certainty of winning approval for every mine application, no matter the costs imposed on anybody else. Any person who takes the trouble to examine the subject more than cursorily must almost certainly conclude that the government can’t say no to King Coal because every time it says yes it fills its own coffers with money. […] mining companies deserve to have certainty: the certainty of boundaries beyond which they may not trespass.” Newcastle Herald editorial.
  • “Decades of progress are now in danger of being rolled back because of climate change. This is a ‘make-or-break’ decade for action on global warming. The time to address the interlinked challenges of climate change and ending extreme poverty is now.” World Bank President Jim Kong Kim.

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