In probably the most blatant attempt at subversion in the history of the international climate negotiations, the Polish economic ministry has teamed up with the coal industry to host a summit to promote coal during this year's top climate meeting. The summit seemed to be doing quite well, managing to even book the UN climate chief Christina Figueres as a speaker (which we disapprove of). But her speech didn’t quite give the industry the quotes and media stories they hoped for.
The meeting purports to promote 'clean coal', which in reality means what promoting 'clean coal' always means for the coal industry: Promoting dirty coal. What the coal industry is seeking is continued political support and public subsidies, even presenting new coal fired power plants as "climate friendly" on the grounds that new power plants are marginally more efficient than old ones. This is, of course, pure insanity, as coal remains the most high-carbon option available, and rapid coal consumption growth is the reason why the world has been badly off track on CO2 emission targets over the past decade.
The last thing the coal industry wants is to be called on to actually deliver on their lofty 'clean coal' promises, but that is exactly what Figueres did. She made it clear that climate change poses an existential challenge to the coal industry and outlined a 3-point plan to make the industry compatible with the efforts to avert catastrophic climate change:
1. Close all existing subcritical plants
This concerns the dirtiest three-fourths of currently operating coal-fired power plants in the world, so it's a bold ask. By no stretch of imagination can these inefficient and dirty power plants be labeled as 'clean'. They emit over a fifth of energy-related CO2 globally, while delivering only 6% of final energy consumed. In addition, they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year, due to air pollution. Closing them down is the only way we can even begin to have a conversation about 'clean coal'.
2. Implement safe Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage on all new plants, even the most efficient
This second requirement on Figueres' list is equally uncomfortable for the coal industry. Despite years of hype and billions of dollars of public subsidies up for grabs, there is no commercial-scale end-to-end system in operation that would capture and store a significant part of the CO2 emissions from coal burning, let alone anything that would approach cost competitiveness with renewable energy technologies. Essentially none of the 1200 coal-fired power plants being planned globally are even considering this option. So the second point on Figueres' list, in today's terms, means a stop to the current coal-fired power plant pipeline.
3. Leave most existing reserves in the ground
The third point simply acknowledges that there are definite limits to technofixes, and most of the coal that is currently in the books of coal mining companies will need to stay in the ground and is worthless, even though it is currently contributing to the companies' market value.
We at Greenpeace do not believe that coal can be clean, and certainly not at a cost that would make any sense given the availability of truly sustainable renewable energy options. Figueres left the door open for coal companies to make good on their promises, but put the burden of proof squarely in the industry's court.
For business and for investors, Figueres' message was clear. Companies that continue to cling onto coal will face "increasing regulation, growing finance restrictions and diminishing public acceptance". She highlighted the growing divestment movement that urges financial institutions to clean fossil fuels out of their portfolios. All of this offers more hope and support for the local and national movements, and Greenpeace offices, fighting against coal power plants, mines and export terminals at the frontlines of climate change.