It's time we realized The True Cost of Coal

Feature story - November 27, 2008
If we are to avert catastrophic climate change the world must quit coal. But the industry and the powerful forces backing it will not go down without a fight. Today, in Warsaw, Greenpeace activists provided the coal industry fat cats with two reminders that we need real solutions to global warming -- and that means quitting coal.

Our activists dumped coal on the doorstep of a luxury Warsaw hotel where industry ministers from 20 countries are meeting to discuss coal's future. During the action, the activists unveiled a banner saying "Get serious, quit coal!"

Greenpeace has also published a report on the "True Cost of Coal" that calculates the real annual financial costs of using coal as an energy source by factoring in its impact on the climate, public health, and the cost of deadly mining accidents.

Hosted by the Polish Government, the coal conference's literature claims that the meeting is being held to agree on policies to help the climate. But the agenda reveals it is about saving profits, not the planet.

Background documents available at the coal industry's Summit on Sectoral Cooperation, as this little get-together is called, describe coal as the main fuel for power generation in the future and discuss "adequate policy actions." The documents hold up the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate as a "spectacular example of good policy initiatives on climate protection." But the Asia Pacific partnership is just a coal pact -- an agreement by some of the world's leading polluters to do nothing in particular, within no particular timeframe, and in no particular manner. In the face of catastrophic climate change that's worse than doing nothing.

The True Cost of Coal

Coinciding with this meeting is the release of our report "The True Cost of Coal", which describes the costs coal imposes on society. Produced in conjunction with the independent Dutch Institute CE Delft, the report puts a price tag on some of the more obvious damages caused along the coal chain-of-custody, including climate change, health impacts from air pollution, and loss of life from mining accidents. Last year, these damages cost the world at least 360 billion euros.

Download the True Cost of Coal report

Of course not all the costs of coal can be measured in dollars and cents. In Columbia, indigenous communities are threatened and forced off their lands to make way for coal mines; thousands of people in Jharia, India, suffer from horrendous living conditions because of uncontrollable coal fires; and in Russia, unsafe mining conditions have meant injury and death for scores of workers. We tell twelve of these stories in our report, but there are thousands more to be found wherever coal is mined or burned. 

In places like Indonesia, China, and Thailand, air pollution from coal combustion is destroying livelihoods, damaging ancient relics, reducing crop yields, and killing people. The legacy of mining ensures that land in South Africa will continue to be poisoned by acid mine drainage long after mines are closed. In the Kuyavia-Pomerania region of Poland, mining activities have caused the water level of Lake Ostrowskie to drop dramatically. In the United States coal has meant blowing up mountains, burying streams, and contaminating nearby communities. In Germany, reclaiming opencast mines has created dead lakes with water as acidic as vinegar. 

However, in response to the unmitigated destruction and harm caused by coal, communities are rising up. In Australia, winemakers, horse breeders, local residents, and miners are saying no to mine expansion and yes to a just transition to renewable energy. In the Philippines, a diverse group has united to oppose a new coal-fired power station, calling instead for clean energy development. Stories such as these are inspiring, provide hope, and point towards a better future - one not marred by dirty coal but fueled by energy sources that are safe and sustainable and will protect our climate.

Poland threatens climate package

The EU is days away from sealing a deal on its own response to climate change, with a series of laws known as the "climate package," which should provide a boost to renewable energy and reduce Europe's reliance on coal. The European position will have a massive bearing on global negotiations to strengthen the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, culminating in Copenhagen at the end of next year.

Poland is currently threatening to block the EU package. Despite a recent report  showing that implementing the proposed climate package would benefit the Polish economy, vested interests have convinced the Polish government otherwise. Poland generates 90% of its power from burning coal, and the industry has convinced the government that their interests come before those of the climate.

Perhaps that's why there won't be any representatives from the renewable industry attending the Sheraton shindig in Warsaw.

A future without coal is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change. The most effective way to do this is for the world to work together under one agreement. Poland, host of the upcoming climate talks in Poznan, could have designed a meeting to help progress towards an environmentally effective global agreement on climate protection rather than hinder it.

We're calling on all countries at the UN climate negotiations next week to get serious and put a meaningful proposal on the table. The proposal must include a "climate vision" which will address what the science requires: global emissions peaking by 2015. We want to see developed countries agree to emission reduction targets of 25-40%, along with a draft negotiating text on the table and a detailed workplan to get this completed by the Copenhagen climate meetings that will be held in December 2009.