The inconvenient truth is that coal remains a cheap and dirty fuel — and the idea of ‘clean’ coal remains a distant dream
This year’s UN climate negotiations are in Durban, South Africa. Many delegates will already be looking forward to the chance of going on safari after their labors, visiting Kruger National Park or one of the country’s other magnificent game reserves. But I have another suggestion. Visit the enemy. Just two hours’ drive up the Indian Ocean coast from Durban is Richards Bay, a huge deep-water harbor that is home to the world’s largest coal export terminal.
Anyone seduced by the conference exhibition halls in Durban, filled with the latest renewable energy technology, will get a rude awakening at Richards Bay. For it may tell the real story of our energy futures — and it is scary.
King coal is extending his kingdom. So dysfunctional is the world’s response to climate change that every year, the dirtiest fuel of them all is generating a growing proportion of the world’s energy.
All the talks in Durban will be of how to kick the coal habit. But as the climate talks have dragged on — from Nairobi in 2006 to Bali to Poznan to Copenhagen to Cancun and now to Durban — we have been hardening our addiction.
When the talks began half a decade ago, 25 percent of the world’s primary energy came from coal. The figure is now 29.6 percent. Between 2009 and 2010, global coal consumption grew by almost 8 percent.
South Africa may enjoy green plaudits for hosting the Durban conference. And, to be fair, it has offered to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy. But the fact is that today the would-be midwife of a global climate deal has rich-world emissions in a predominantly poor-world country. Per head of population, its CO2 emissions are higher than those in the UK, while its GDP per capita is only a sixth as much. It is responsible for about 40 percent of Africa’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning.
The reason is coal. Making energy by burning coal produces twice as much CO2 as by burning natural gas. And South Africa is one of the most coal-dependent nations on Earth, generating 93 percent of its electricity from the black stuff, compared to China’s 80 percent, India’s 70 percent and the U.S.’s 45 percent.
Besides its domestic reliance on coal, South Africa also helps maintain the rest of the world’s ruinous carbon fix. It is the world’s third-largest exporter of power-station coal. Its giant mines in Mpumalanga province feed a constant convoy of coal trains headed for Richards Bay. Recently expanded, the export terminal there can now handle 91 million tons of coal a year — enough to produce more than 200 million tons of CO2. Mining giants Anglo American and BHP Billiton ship that coal to Europe, and, increasingly, to the new industrial powerhouses of Asia.
The world is in the middle of a coal rush. That is why last year — despite much political posturing about curbing greenhouse gas emissions — the 5.8-percent rise in global energy-related CO2 emissions marginally exceeded the global rise in energy consumption. Thanks to coal, the world’s economy is becoming more carbon intensive.
Cynics who said tougher carbon controls in rich nations might increase global emissions by outsourcing energy-intensive industries to poorer nations with laxer standards are, for now at least, being proved right. While many Western economies stall, many developing economies are growing fast. And the continuing heavy dependence of many of them on coal is pushing up the global economy’s reliance on the dirtiest fuel.
For the rest of this article, please go to The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/31/why-world-burning-coal