It is widely known that Poland gets much of its energy from coal (it is even a net exporter). Many countries do, so it is hardly alone in this regard. In my last post I illustrated the increasing global dependence on coal through a recent tender issued by two states in India for a total of 8 GW of coal. At the recent Chatham House Climate Conference, one speaker noted that current Asian coal projects will add some 250 GW of capacity by the end of this decade. These facts highlight the challenge that we face in trying to manage global emissions.
In light of the above, what should we then make of the Warsaw Communique released recently by the World Coal Association and the Polish government. Of course Warsaw is the location of the COP 19 Climate Change Conference and the Polish government will preside over the event. For many environmental NGOs and others the Communique was a step too far, with “outrage” emanating from some green groups.
On the surface, there is a contradiction between coal use and managing global emissions. After all, coal is the most carbon intense fossil fuel and its global use has risen sharply in recent years along with a corresponding rise in emissions. If it were not for this significant increase in coal use, renewable energy would actually be making inroads into the global energy mix and taking some measureable market share. In reality, it isn’t. But the Communique argues that increasing the efficiency of coal combustion can go a long way towards addressing its increased use. The text also makes some reference to carbon capture and storage and clean coal, but its focus is solidly on efficiency.
Like it or not, coal use is going to continue, but arguing for increased efficiency as an approach to managing its emissions is where the criticism should be leveled, not at the idea that coal use is potentially compatible with a very low emission future.
Increasing the efficiency of coal use is really where the whole issue of rapidly increasing global emissions started, so it is very unlikely to be the place where it stops. It was William Stanley Jevons who noted that coal use increased as efficiency improved. Jevons Paradox is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. In 1865 Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal use led to increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption. There are more modern versions of this analysis, one of which I wrote about in a post last year.
While individual coal plants may well become more efficient as a result of a global efficiency initiative, total coal use and therefore the total accumulation of emissions over time will likely rise. This then pushes us faster towards some fixed amount of atmospheric warming (as this is directly related to cumulative emissions over time).
So the Warsaw Communique is barking up the wrong tree, even as it opens up the valid discussion about growing global coal use in the face of a desire to see emissions fall. The focus of the Communique should have been Carbon Capture and Storage, not efficiency. CCS is the bridge technology between a world that will use more coal but also wants to reduce emissions. There are more than enough people already barking up the efficiency tree, but precious few trying to hold a real conversation about CCS.
A Communique that focused on CCS would have been a real achievement and a welcome addition to the COP. Unfortunately the Communique that did emerge may turn out to be an “own goal”.