Coal action

All around the globe, a series of punches are being thrown at coal this summer. The international winds are shifting and the dirty black rock is becoming increasingly unpopular worldwide.

Washington fired the first shots. On June 25, U.S President Barack Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan. In the 21 page plan and the separately issued Presidential Memorandum, the President outlined his intention to put greenhouse gas limits on new and existing power plants. 

The President’s bold move is largely a realization that coal is no longer the bedrock fueling the U.S economy. Combined with the shale gas boom and rapid development of renewable energies, coal fired power plants are facing an ever more competitive market in the U.S. In fact, already it no longer makes economic sense to build new coal plants in the country.

The impact of the plan is not restricted to inside U.S borders. The President has also called for an end to public financing of new overseas coal plants. 

It does not take long for this kind of high-level guidance to materialize. On July 18, the U.S Export-Import Bank, the only U.S federal agency that was still financing coal plants abroad, voted against financing U.S exports to build a coal plant in Vietnam. This effectively concludes an era for American-sponsored coal plants.

Joining in the symphony is the World Bank. Financing more than 50 billion U.S dollars worth of infrastructure projects in 2012, the bank decided on July 16 to cut off funding for coal power plants with exception only given to “rare circumstances”.

The domino effect extends across the Atlantic. The European Investment Bank (EIB), one of the world's biggest public lenders and whose stakeholders are mainly European Union member states, rejected coal by raising the emission performance standard in its lending policy on July 23.

Globally, further commitments to build new coal power plants are proving too financially risky. The “lock-in” effect of airborne pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is becoming too costly. Emerging new energy industries have demonstrated their capability to not only substitute coal but also create more jobs and future competitiveness.

If there's anything to take away from the events of the past month, it's that dirty fuel is already yesterday’s energy. Major countries and investors are withdrawing support on coal.

But there is one major player missing in this movement against coal: China. Burning as much coal as the rest of the world combined, the country is where coal takes the heaviest toll on human health and the environment. 

According to the True Cost of Coal, a Greenpeace commissioned research, the environmental and ecologic losses from coal use and exploitation in China is equivalent to 7-9% of the national annual GDP.

Recent health implication studies resonate with the finding. Early last month, a team of scholars from the U.S, China, and Israel reached the conclusion that severe air pollution, largely as a result of coal combustion, reduces average life expectancy in northern China by a staggering 5.5 years.

Despite this China is falling far behind global efforts to phase out the dirtiest of dirty fuels. Despite recent efforts to beef up air pollution control measures, the country is still hesitant to wave goodbye to coal.

But the need for drastic measures is urgent and perhaps best reflected on the PM2.5 indices. While the Europeans and Americans enjoy much cleaner air, Chinese citizens can only dream about it under heavily coal-polluted skies, with the PM index usually exceeding triple digits.

A recent survey by Greenpeace shows that Chinese citizens are increasingly fed up with the bad air. Nearly 70% of the residents surveyed in the Hebei region are unsatisfied with the air they breathe.

Problems stay not only with breathing, but also access to clean water, a resource also exploited by coal. In 2015, at least some 10 billion cubic meters of water – equivalent to one sixth of the annual total water volume of the Yellow River – will be consumed by 16 new coal power bases, mostly concentrated in the northwestern part of China, as discovered by Thirsty Coal, another study of Greenpeace along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

And last month we followed up with our second Thirsty Coal report. The case study highlights Ordos in Inner Mongolia, where a water intensive coal-to-liquid project deployed by the Shenhua Group, the world’s largest coal producer, has been shamelessly exploiting 50 million tonnes of local groundwater since 2006. 

Beautiful lands have become ravaged. The livelihoods of local villagers and herdsmen are already threatened. Chinese water resource principles and laws have been ruthlessly violated. In China’s driest regions, where even a single drop of water is too precious to be squandered, the country is trading the basic drinking rights of millions for energy.

And with vast amounts of water needed to turn coal into chemicals such as transport fuels, the rationale of rushing headlong into coal expansion, especially by the controversial coal chemical industry, is highly questionable.

This Shenhua project and numerous other environmental abuse cases collectively present a key test to the new leadership, who took an oath to improve the environment while being sworn into office.

Resolute efforts to confront the entrenched corporate interests manifested in the Shenhua case must be taken. Careful reassessment of the country’s energy strategy needs to be conducted in accordance with human health standards and the available water resource.

If these are not done, while the rest of the world embraces the end of the age of coal, we risk seeing only the beginning of human and environmental suffering in China. 

Image: Greenpeace activists protest with a hot air balloon at the RWE coal power plant Niederaussem near Cologne. © Bernd Arnold / Greenpeace