Global Warming

Witnessing the "Last Coughs" of a Dying Coal Industry in Warsaw?

Reason's science correspondent sends a first dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference

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Warsaw—The second week of the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicked off Monday. The goal of the meeting of 10,000 or participants is to establish a pathway toward wringing firm commitments out of the 195 signatory countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide, by the COP-21 meeting in Paris in 2015. The climate treaty is intended to limit the increase in the mean global temperature to no more than two degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial average. During the first day at the conference, the future of coal was on the chopping block.

The first press briefing I attended, by the non-governmental organization Germanwatch, seemed uncharacteristically hopeful. The group issued its annual Climate Change Performance Index which ranks 58 countries relative to one another on how well Germanwatch analysts think each country is doing with respect climate change emissions and policies. For what it's worth, Denmark, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland, in that order, rank at the top as most climate-friendly, whereas Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Canada, and Australia ascend in that order from the bottom of the rankings. President Barack Obama, whose Environmental Protection Agency has placed strict limits on the emissions of new coal-fired electric generation plants and has ordered that American cars double their miles per gallon from 27 to 54 by 2025, will surely be disappointed to learn that the U.S. standing as number 43 on the list did not change.

Germanwatch's Christoph Bals began by analyzing carbon dioxide emissions trends over the past decade. First, the bad news—the world is emitted about seven gigatons more carbon dioxide annually than it did ten years ago. Some 80 percent of that emissions increase came from a rapidly growing China. The remainder of the rise came from other developing countries. The emissions from developed countries did not increase overall during that period. In other words, carbon dioxide emissions from rich developed countries may have peaked in the last decade.

Now for what Bals regarded as the good news—China is rapidly increasing its carbon intensity, that is, the country is steadily cutting the amount of carbon dioxide it emits per unit of GDP. As a result of these trends, Bals and his Germanwatch colleagues believe that it may be possible to see overall carbon dioxide emissions reaching a plateau around 2020.

At the following Climate Action Network briefing, the tone was considerably angrier and more pessimistic. Bert Metz from the European Climate Foundation released a joint statement, "New Unabated Coal is Not Compatible with Keeping Global Warming Below 2° C," from 27 scientists arguing most of the world's coal must stay underground. By "unabated," the scientists mean that the carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere rather than being captured and injected underground. The group has calculated that world can emit only about 1,000 gigatons more carbon dioxide in order to stay below the 2° temperature limit, yet burning all of the world's known reserves of fossil fuels would result in the emission of nearly 4,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. The group asserts that their calculations mean that carbon dioxide emissions from coal must be reduced by 80 to 96 percent by 2050.

As luck would have it, the coal industry is holding its International Coal and Climate Summit in Warsaw right now. The coal moguls gamely invited Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC to give a keynote and she didn't offer them much love. "The coal industry has the opportunity to be part of the worldwide climate solution by responding proactively to the current paradigm shift," declared Figueres. Proactive responses she suggested include closing all subcritical coal-fired power plants, installing carbon capture and sequestration on all new plants, and leaving most existing coal reserves in the ground.

The majority (one estimate is 70 percent) of the world's coal-fired plants are subcritical, that is, they operate at relatively low pressure and efficiency. Carbon capture and sequestration would likely raise the cost of electricity by 40 to 60 percent. Since coal companies must leave most of their reserves unburned, Figueres suggested that they instead invest in renewables. Basically, she invited coal companies to go out of business. Meanwhile, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, 350.org, and other green groups enjoyed themselves with protests outside the coal summit. Back at the COP-19, the activists held a "kick coal out of the climate talks" rally.

Back at the COP-19, the activists issued the People's Statement on Coal and they, too, didn't have anything nice to say about the fossil fuel. The People demanded a ban on all new coal projects, an end to all public financing of coal projects, and instead want governments to mobilize "public finance to make a just transition to democratic, renewable and clean energy systems for people and communities as fast as possible." And one more demand: "Stop excessive energy consumption by corporations and elites."

Robert Chimambo, a representative of the Pan-Africa Climate Justice Network complained that Africans had done nothing to cause the problem of climate change, yet Africans are dying from the effects of climate change that have resulted from burning coal. Since only 24 percent of sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, one does wonder if it might be that more Africans are dying due to a lack of electricity than from climate change.

Also at the COP-19, a World Wildlife Fund panel piled onto the coal industry. "We're looking at the end of the age of coal," declared Samantha Smith, leader of WWF's Global Climate & Energy Initiative. "We are seeing the last coughs of a dying set of companies." David Nussbaum, the CEO of the U.K. branch of the WWF, agreed with Smith. Nussbaum further suggested that equity markets are confused when it comes to coal and climate change.

On the one hand, he asserted, market valuations of fossil fuel companies assume that all their reserves will be extracted and burned. On the other hand, the market valuations of other stocks assume that the planet is not going to heat up; assume no climate disruption from burning fossil fuels. This is a big contradiction that Nussbaum claimed will threaten future financial instability on the scale the 2008 crisis. Consequently, Nussbaum offered free investment advice to pension funds and universities: Prevent future losses on the fossil fuels portion of their portfolios by divesting themselves of those stocks as quickly as possible. I suppose that it is possible that Nussbaum knows more about stock market valuations than do tens of thousands of investors.

In any case, as evidence of coal's imminent demise, Smith cited the Goldman Sachs report, "The window for thermal coal investment is closing." Why? Because of increased environmental regulations, greater competition from natural gas and renewable energy, and improvements in energy efficiency. Oddly, Goldman Sachs purchased a coal mining company in Colombia last year and holds a stake in India's biggest coal company. In addition, its analysts recently upgraded several U.S. coal company stocks. Interestingly, Warren Buffet seems to be bullish on at least one fossil fuel company, buying a $3.7 billion stake in ExxonMobil last week.

Finally, at his first press conference in Warsaw on Monday, U.S. chief climate negotiator Todd Stern cited the Obama administration's proposed "carbon pollution" regulations on new power plant emissions as evidence that the country was moving away from coal. Stern also noted that, going forward, the world would tilt more toward renewables and improvements in energy efficiency, but that burning coal using carbon capture and sequestration might have some role.

Perhaps declaring the death of coal is a bit premature. In its 2013 report on international energy trends, the Energy Information Administration projects that world coal production will increase from eight billion short tons in 2010 to 11.5 billion short tons in 2040. That being said, coal consumption trends are mainly dependent on the political and economic decisions of the Politburo in China. For example, the Chinese government has just proposed capping coal consumption as a way to begin trying to control its apocalyptic levels of air pollution.

On the second day, depending on the news, I may take a look at the demands by developing countries that the U.N. establish a system for compensating them for the "loss and damage" from weather extremes driven by climate change. Of course, the developed countries that ruined the weather must pay the compensation.

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28 responses to “Witnessing the "Last Coughs" of a Dying Coal Industry in Warsaw?

  1. Interestingly, Warren Buffet seems to be bullish on at least one fossil fuel company, buying a $3.7 billion stake in ExxonMobil last week.

    Heh. That wily old hypocrite would never let his sop to progressives get in the way of actually making some money.

    1. Do you have to summon Fecal Demon so early on what was shaping up as a beautiful morning?

    2. Exxon is a big fracker and is capitalizing on cheap natgas as a replacement to filthy coal.

      Buffett is smarter than any other capitalist – don’t resist it.

      1. “Buffett is smarter than any other capitalist – don’t resist it.”

        Yeah, sleazy hypocrites are my fave folks.

      2. Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out http://www.Buzz95.com

      3. Numbnuts stating that Exxon is a big fracker reiterates your butt plug ism, inquiring minds have decided that you are a dolt.Nice try though

  2. the Chinese government has just proposed capping coal consumption as a way to begin trying to control its apocalyptic levels of air pollution.

    That’s a more immediate and dangerous threat than the fantasy of “climate change” a.k.a. angry volcano god. However, it would be far less costly and far less disruptive to ask factories to install precipitators and scrubbers in their smokestacks than making the coal mining industry curb their production.

    1. Are there an y figures to back that up?

      1. It comes from simple economic analysis, MJ. Pollution caused by heavy particles, carbon monoxide and sulfur compounds from incomplete coal combustion present a far greater threat to human well-being and a huge liability issue for manufacturers than so-called “climate change”, precisely because of the former’s immediateness. You can see and feel pollution. It is an obvious by-product of incomplete/inefficient combustion. Incomplete combustion also means money being thrown into the air. A manufacturer is liable to get sued over the filth that is being expelled from his smokestacks. The easiest solution to this issue is to either use the less dirty (but more expensive) anthracite coal, or install better combustion and scrubbing systems to use the much more available bituminous coal (the dirtier kind.)

    2. Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either. http://clmtr.lt/cb/zXy0bsr
      Climate change caused by human activities is not a fantasy and we need to act. I applaud China’s efforts to reduce consumption of coal and to develop renewable energy sources.

  3. Consequently, Nussbaum offered free investment advice to pension funds and universities: Prevent future losses on the fossil fuels portion of their portfolios by divesting themselves of those stocks as quickly as possible. I suppose that it is possible that Nussbaum knows more about stock market valuations than do tens of thousands of investors.

    That was my exact thought after I read about Nussbaum’s friendly “advice.” Pretty much the same as Who the fuck is he, anyway?

  4. The coal moguls gamely invited Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC to give a keynote and she didn’t offer them much love. “The coal industry has the opportunity to be part of the worldwide climate solution by responding proactively to the current paradigm shift,” declared Figueres. Proactive responses she suggested include closing all subcritical coal-fired power plants, installing carbon capture and sequestration on all new plants, and leaving most existing coal reserves in the ground.

    And I am sure that whatever she billed the coal moguls was money well spent, because as you well know, trying to get businesspeople to cartelize – in a free market, at least – is like trying to herd cats. At least one will say “yeah, sure, whatever you guys say!” and then go ahead and undercut everybody’s price. But what if the “coal indsutry” lobbies governments across the globe to impose restructions on production (which is what this woman was basically suggesting) under the guise of acting “proactively” to help the planet get rid of the scurge of climate change? Why, that would immediately drive the price of coal upwards, everywhere! It will be like Christmas every day!

  5. The climate treaty is intended to limit the increase in the mean global temperature to no more than two degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial average.

    No statistically significant increase in global temperatures for 15 years.

    Mission accomplished.

    Shut the fuck up.

    1. “No statistically significant increase in global temperatures for 15 years.

      Mission accomplished.”

      Last year, I would have thought you crazy. But last year it was only 14 years. This year it’s 15. Clearly you are on to something. Who knows what the number will be next year?

      1. Good to see that you’re terrified of a 17 year warming trend and dismissive of a 12-17 year flat temperature trend. After all, that’s great in practice but it’ll never work in theory!

  6. Honestly, the thermal coal industry (insofar as it is used in the US) should be on its way out–not as a result of state intervention, but because private industry is building so many late-model nuclear reactors that coal is consonantly supplanted.

    But if you guys want to mine that shit and sell it to the Chinese all day long, don’t let me stop you!

    /President Libertarius

    1. Except that your assertion that we are building a plethora of nuke plants isn’t true. There are a couple in the pipeline, but whether they come to fruition is problematic.

      I do agree with you that the greenies who demand “green”, carbon free energy are retarded, one only has to look at Germany, their grid is in peril and i’ll laugh my ass of off when they pay 3 times market rates and get blackouts to boot.

      So I agree that without coal or nat gas nukes are the only alternative as base load, but the headwinds are obvious for nukes, luddites behind it, for sure, but this bunch is a a political force , Barry’s cadre will fight it out of shear chutzpah because we all know logic ain’t in their playbook.

      1. Notice I said nuclear *should* supplant coal, as it would have already done in a free market.

        As it stands, the leftoids want to control energy as a means of controlling human beings. But what they truly want is to destroy human life, they are nihilistic worshippers of death, so they are trying to kill *all* practical methods of energy production.

        Solar? Windmills? GTFOutta here.

  7. Coal has an emission factor of 0.963 kg CO2/kWh, oil 0.881 kg CO2/kWh and natural gas 0.569 kg CO2/kWh so I can see why there is a focus on reducing or eliminating it. Still if

    “world coal production will increase from eight billion short tons in 2010 to 11.5 billion short tons in 2040”

    is accurate, there is a demand for coal that isn’t going to go away unless use of natural gas explodes. I hope all this talk is hyperbole because it isn’t very practical. Human caused global warming is a serious issue that needs to be addressed with something more than unrealistic demands like coal companies moving from their primary product to become alternative energy companies.

    Off topic – what is with all the typos? Is this an online news source or is it just a bunch of blogs? If it is just blogs I’ll adjust my expectations.

    Typo list
    “meeting of 10,000 or participants”/meeting of 10,000 or more participants
    “respect climate change”/respect to climate change
    “the world is emitted about seven gigatons more”/the world has emitted about seven gigatons more
    “that world can emit”/ that the world can emit
    “on the scale the 2008 crisis”/on the scale of the 2008 crisis

    1. Human caused global warming is a serious issue that needs to be addressed

      15 years…none

      1. You don’t buy the idea that the heat is stored in the ocean and will be released soon causing an even greater increase in global temperatures that when taken over time will yield an average increase in line with climate model predictions?

        1. Absolutely not. Heat and mass transfer, how does it work?

          There is absolutely NO mechanism that would allow the oceans to warm without the atmosphere warming as well. And even if that was possible, why did the atmosphere warm for what, 50 years, without this “heat sink” having any effect and then suddenly, in 1998 it kicks in?

          Complete nonsense.

          These people are scrambling to come up with ANYTHING that will salvage their flawed models. Models are not science. They are tools of science. Garbage in, garbage out.

          1. That last IPCC report *should* be the end of this bullshit; they openly admit that nothing of what their models have predicted bear any relevance to reality, but then they just sweep that aside and double-down on their (political) narrative.

            Are there any men of science left in the world, not rationalists who cook up half-baked deductive theories or partisan hacks who create rationalizations for transparently political aims? Isaac Newton is spinning in his grave.

    2. “Human caused global warming is a serious issue that needs to be addressed with something more than unrealistic demands like coal companies moving from their primary product to become alternative energy companies.”

      Assertion not supported by evidence.

      1. Not sure what you mean? Do you require evidence that human activity is affecting global warming or that a more pragmatic approach toward the coal industry would be more effective than a hyperbolic one?

        1. I’m pretty sure there is no evidence that human activity is affecting global warming.

          Of course that’s not to say that the earth isn’t warming (seeing as how we haven’t looped back to another ice age, I’d say it’s a good bet we’re warmer than we were at some point in history).

        2. ReasonableS|11.19.13 @ 1:24PM|#
          “Not sure what you mean?”

          Here: “Human caused global warming is a serious issue…”
          Define “serious”.

  8. Global warming argument aside.

    My main concern with coal is more the pollution it produces rather than its warning effects, but I’m not accepting of the idea that plants should be forced to close.

    You want the problem solved establish some property rights and allow them to be sued for the pollution they produce.

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