SYDNEY – Momentum seems to be building for a global deal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. With this sense of optimism comes a keen awareness that the use of fossil fuels must be phased out globally as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the idea that greenhouse-gas emissions should be reduced to zero by 2050 is gaining wider acceptance.
Early movers are already shaking things up. Universities, pension funds, churches, banks, and even the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune are pulling their money out of fossil-fuel assets or are considering the possibility of divestment – an option made increasingly attractive by the swiftly falling cost of renewable energy.
In the face of this progress, though, one sector stands apart. The coal industry seems determined to fight for profits at the expense of the global environment. Perversely, it is furiously attempting to capture the moral high ground by claiming that coal is essential to ending energy poverty.
Coal companies and their allies argue that limiting coal production would keep the lights off in rural communities by preventing poor countries from building big, cheap power plants. “Let's have no demonization of coal," as one ally, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, put it. “Coal is good for humanity." Speaking at an event hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that is skeptical of climate change, the United Kingdom's former environment secretary, Owen Paterson, accused climate-change activists of having “African blood" on their hands.
Setting aside the deeply offensive character of such efforts to silence its critics, the coal industry is posing a false choice: end the use of coal or end poverty. But, though energy is indeed central to efforts to end poverty, one must be clear: at this point in history, coal is not good for anyone.
Consider this: for all of the attention the Ebola virus has received in recent months, coal is a far deadlier killer. Toxic fly ash kills some 800,000 people per year and sickens millions more. Beijing's ongoing battle with smog – a problem that has become known as the “airpocalypse" – provides a potent reminder of coal's impact on air quality. But China's capital is hardly unique in that respect. Many Indian cities have air pollution that is just as bad – and in some cases far worse.
Coal is also the single largest contributor to climate change, which threatens to put 400 million people in the poorest countries at risk of severe food and water shortages by 2050.
The coal industry is seeking to burden developing countries with the same unsustainable growth model that has brought the earth to the brink of climate disaster. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly warned – and as the experience of countries like the Marshall Islands increasingly demonstrates – climate change is no longer a distant threat. The terrible consequences of burning fossil fuels are already upon us, and those suffering the most are the world's poor.
Most people understand that coal is a dirty business, one that countries like Australia should abandon for their own economic wellbeing, as well as for the sake of the global climate. That is why we are witnessing such resistance from the industry. Coal's day is over, but it is trying desperately to hang on.
The world needs a rapid and fair transition away from dirty energy sources. That means cleaning up developed economies and working to prevent the massive expansion of industries that damage our collective health and future. It also means working with developing countries to help them develop modern, clean energy sources that provide cheap, locally produced power, and do not oblige them to buy fossil fuels.
Above all, it means that we must stop telling the poor in developing countries what they should do and start listening to what they want. And what they want – unfortunately for the coal industry – is clean, affordable energy that powers their present, without costing them their future.