Although the world has access to enough clean energy to meet our energy needs six times over, it also has an abundance of coal.
Globally coal is the greatest climate threat we face, contributing more to global warming than any other fossil fuel. Coal contains more carbon than other fossil fuels , so it releases more carbon than the other fuels when it’s burned.
Coal is used to produce nearly 40% of the world’s electricity and governments around the world are allowing industry to spend billions of dollars on new coal-fired power stations. Hundreds are currently under construction or in planning.
If these new coal plants are built, carbon emissions from coal are expected to rise 60 per cent by 2030, undermining international efforts to tackle climate change.
To have any chance of safely keeping global temperatures from rising by less than 2C and limiting the damage from climate change, we need to quit coal, increase energy efficiency and step up production of clean, renewable energy.
” The single greatest threat to the climate comes from burning coal. Coal-fired generation is historically responsible for most of the CO2 in the air today – responsible for about half of all carbon dioxide emissions globally”
Jim Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space
The true cost of coal
Coal may be one of the cheapest fossil fuels on the global energy market but that’s only half the story. The mining and burning of coal causes misery to millions worldwide.
Coal disrupts ecosystems and contaminates water supplies. It emits other greenhouse gases like nitrogen oxide and methane, as well as black carbon and toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic.
Leaking waste ruins fish stocks and agriculture, and thus livelihoods, and directly contributes to health problems like black lung disease.
The people affected by these impacts are often the world’s poorest. In Jharia, India thousands of people living around a decaying coal mine endure horrendous living conditions caused by uncontrollable coal fires. In Russia, unsafe mining conditions have caused injury and death for scores of workers.
A study by the Dutch research institute CE Delft concluded that the cost of global health impacts from air pollution and loss of life from mining accidents in 2007 was at least 360 billion Euros.
This staggering figure is likely short of the real annual damages caused by coal since not all impacts were assessed. Add to this the increasing costs for climate change in the future and you get a sense of the high price people and the planet are playing for burning coal.
The end of coal
While most countries have not yet ruled out building new coal-fired power plants, here in Britain there is cause for optimism. Thousands of people, alongside Greenpeace, Oxfam, RSPB and the WI successfully pressured the UK government to promise to phase out coal. And since early 2016, UK coal consumption has been falling fast.
One of Greenpece’s most iconic campaigns in recent years took place at Kingsnorth in Kent, where German energy utility E.on planned to build the first new coal plant in Britain for over 30 years to replace an existing plant. For over three years we lobbied decision makers and in 2008 took non-violent direct action at the coal station in Kingsnorth. The trial of six of the activists involved and their subsequent acquittal on the grounds that they were preventing greater damage from climate change- marked a pivotal moment in the fight against new coal in Britain. The New York Times even called it ‘one of the ideas that changed the world’.
Following the campaign, E.on decided to pull out of building a new coal fired power station at Kingsnorth and the prospect of new coal stations being built here in the UK is now very low.
Coal may have been essential in powering the Industrial Revolution, but now its time has clearly passed.
The start of a clean energy revolution
As world leaders fail to step up and take the necessary action to stop coal, people across the world are taking on the struggles themselves. Across the world environmental activists, students, doctors, church leaders and many more are mobilising against coal and Greenpeace is working with local and global movements to put an end to coal and promote clean energy.
In the UK we could meet all of our energy needs through energy efficiency, wave and tidal and wind power. We’re campaigning to put clean energy at the very heart of our energy system and of a new, low carbon economy.
The truth about “clean coal”
The coal industry knows they are under threat. Several years ago the industry began a major public relations offensive and central to this was a claim that we needn’t worry about the climate damaging emissions of coal because a technological fix was in the making.
The promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a technology which would involve capturing carbon emissions from power stations and burying them underground – began to be used as a smokescreen to justify the building of new coal-fired power plants, which in reality were as dirty as ever.
CCS technology won’t be ready at a commercial scale for years, and we still don’t really know if CCS will ever be a safe and viable solution, so it would be wrong to rely on this technology to save the climate. In the meantime, coal plants will continue to pump out vast amounts of climate damaging greenhouse gases.