The Climate Change Hypocrisy of World Clean Coal Week

Burning coal for power is the single most important cause of climate change and the biggest obstacle to preventing a planetary climate crisis. Yet this week leaders of the coal industry are meeting in Beijing, China, for “World Clean Coal Week”—an event that appears dedicated to celebrating the wonders of coal and branding the coal industry as a virtual humanitarian business. Apart from the laughably ironic title (coal is one of the dirtiest of fuels) World Clean Coal Week misses the mark by equating increased coal consumption with better quality of life and an end to poverty.

One quote in particular from World Clean Coal Week has already begun spreading on the Internet. Speaking on behalf of Peabody Energy, Senior Vice President Frederick Palmer has reportedly said, “We believe that energy poverty is the world’s top priority, putting people first, not climate change. We believe the challenge of ending energy poverty is global, and the solution is coal.” This statement is wrongheaded and problematic for a variety of reasons, which neatly encapsulate the hypocrisy of World Coal Week.

First is the assumption that energy poverty should be the top priority for planetary do-gooders. If you take Palmer’s words at face value, this means access to electricity should trump availability of clean drinking water, affordable food, basic healthcare, and safety from dictatorial or genocidal regimes as a concern for the world’s poor. This is clearly ridiculous. It goes without saying that improving energy access is a big concern in developing countries. But to say it’s more important than anything else is absurd, and suggests a lack of understanding of the many challenges confronting developing nations.

One of these challenges that just might compete with the ability to switch on a light bulb is, of course, climate change, effects of which will hit developing nations the hardest. Contrary to assumptions of the US media, people in some developing countries are better educated about the effects of climate change than many Americans. I’m reminded of forest villages in Loreto, Peru where most homes have only recently gained access to electricity. I’m sure many people there want easier energy access, but they also care about climate change. Farmers are aware their practices can impact the climate, and schoolchildren learn at an early age how climate change is affecting local ecosystems. Climate change is a real and present concern in the developing world; perhaps more so than in the United States.

Next take Palmer’s assumption that burning more coal is the best or only way to improve energy access. While it’s no surprise a representative of one of the world’s biggest coal companies thinks this way, the validity of the claim is hardly self-evident. Cleaner technologies like wind and solar power are growing cheaper and more accessible in the developing world; small-scale wind and solar projects have the advantage that they can be deployed in rural villages far from centralized power plants. Many houses in the forest villages of Loreto source their electricity not from fossil fuels, but from home solar fixtures. There’s no reason coal must be the engine of the world.

Finally let’s not miss the obvious—notwithstanding the name of World Clean Coal Week, coal is incredibly dirty. Even if you ignore climate change, countries that saddle themselves to coal pay an enormous price. In China, which derives 70% of its energy from coal, a fifth of the urban population breathes “heavily polluted” air. About 500,000 Chinese die yearly from the effects of coal pollution—and in the United States coal causes 30,000 deaths annually. It’s an incontrovertible truth that burning more coal means more people will die from coal-related illness.

In short Palmer and others at World Clean Coal Week get it wrong on almost every score. Coal is not the best or only way to power the developing world, and in fact the world’s poor do have other concerns besides energy access. Palmer, whose company is one of many that wants to export US coal to the developing world, tries to frame curbing climate change and addressing poverty as mutually exclusive goals. But climate change is itself an enormous threat to developing nations.

Thus stands the hypocrisy of the global coal industry, and this week’s conference in Beijing. But then, when you’re looking at an event called Clean Coal Week, hosted in a country that’s become perhaps the most polluted in the world due to its dependence on coal, what can you really expect?

Photo credit: China Newsphoto/Reuters via UK Guardian