Pick up an energy forecast to 2030 and it will almost certainly include a substantial amount of coal in the generation mix. Yet continued growth of unabated coal-fired generation will make it impossible for the world to limit global warming to the 2°C average that most scientists accept as necessary for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Squaring this circle is the much-touted role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – but its development has thus far been so painfully slow that its large-scale roll out seems unlikely to happen in time to make much difference. As an alternative, many in the coal industry are now championing high-efficiency low-emission (HELE) technologies, such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical power plants. The carbon emissions from these plants are significantly lower than those from the subcritical plants that still make up the majority of the global installed fleet of coal-fired power plants. And the critical advantage that these technologies have over CCS is that they are commercially proven and available now. The disadvantage is that they are not clean enough to bring carbon emissions down fast enough to meet the 2°C limit.
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Surely, though, a little change is better than no change? Better make the improvements we can now and keep plugging away at CCS for some future point. After all, coal is not going away: the developing world cannot industrialise without it and asking them to do so would be deeply unfair. The poverty reduction and energy security that coal-fired power allows must be balanced with any demands to decarbonise the global economy.
This may well be the way things unfold. Even with the effort to reach a global agreement at COP21 in Paris later this year, the chances of it being enough to limit global warming to 2°C seem slim. There is also little chance of any agreement being ratified by the US Senate and without the US onboard any agreement is essentially meaningless.
But without a global agreement, the risk is that the rather hodgepodge approach to power industry regulation we see at the moment continues. This is proving deeply disruptive in Europe, where renewables have been lavishly subsidised to the detriment of reliable baseload power, and in the US where the proposed Clean Power Plan seems to have set off a dash for gas. In the developing countries of Asia, reliance on unabated subcritical coal would continue – with the health effects that this entails for those that live around such plants (not to mention the continued high level of carbon emissions).
Perhaps, then, it is time for the coal industry to be more radical in its thinking. Rather than lobbying for slow changes and limited regulation, is it time to embrace the opportunities that technology brings? Commit to bringing CCS technology online on the scale required to make a difference in time to make a difference. Even accept stringent and global regulation of carbon emissions from coal-fired plants as a condition for CCS development receiving the financial support it needs to go big – quickly. At the minimum, this should include guaranteed feed-in tariffs in western nations (similar to those enjoyed by the renewables sector in Germany, for example, where they have enjoyed explosive growth) and backing for project development from multilateral lenders, export credit agencies and development finance institutions in the developing world.
Such moves would put the environmentalist movement on the back foot and prove to the world’s politicians – and the public they represent – that the industry is serious about its commitment to helping to tackle climate change. It could also cement coal’s place as the primary provider of low-carbon baseload power, safeguarding grid stability, until such a time as energy storage technology has developed enough to allow renewables to take on this role.
Is this pie-in-the-sky thinking? Probably. But it seems to me that the future always lies with those that have the imagination to think beyond currently accepted ideas; with those that see solutions not problems; with those that can imagine a future where the coal industry is lauded for its radical role in limiting climate change – not demonised for causing it.