As the latest round of UN talks on climate change concluded in Mexico in December and attention now turns to the next talks in Durban at the end of 2011, it is important to understand the role of coal in our lives as an engine for economic and social development and the lynchpin of energy security.
For its part, the coal industry is reducing emissions at its own operations, investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies and encouraging and assisting governments to do likewise.
Just as local coal operations responded to concerns expressed in the communities in which they operated about sulphur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) and ambient pollution, the global industry is responding to concerns expressed by the worldwide community about CO2 emissions, mine safety and other challenges.
But it is important to remember there is more to coal than the negatives associated with traditional combustion or mining methods. Coal has been the driver of economic and social development in the West and is raising living standards in many developing countries now.
Study after study has demonstrated that access to affordable, reliable energy – particularly electricity – equates to longer lives and a higher quality of life. And coal is the cornerstone of global electricity, providing more than 40 per cent of the world’s power today and for the foreseeable future.
Coal is also a vital element for 70 per cent of the world’s steel and aluminium, making possible the benefits to the numerous industries and economies – aerospace, shipbuilding, infrastructure and construction, packaging – that rely on those materials.
The energy and environmental demands of the 21st Century mean that the world needs more of all energy forms. It will need more nuclear, more renewables, higher levels of energy efficiency. But the world’s energy and environmental aspirations cannot be achieved without coal.
The International Energy Agency has demonstrated that it is not possible to restrict global temperature rises this century to 2 degrees Centigrade without coal and the widespread deployment of CCS. In fact, to try to do so without coal and CCS would make the global mitigation effort 78 per cent more expensive than it need be by 2050.
No wonder, then, that the head of the IEA, Nobuo Tanaka, has said that: “The deployment of CCS should be a litmus test for the seriousness of negotiators dealing with climate change.”
Coal is the rock of ages – the bedrock of the modern world and the engine of tomorrow’s growth and human prosperity.