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Coal Has Key Role in Climate Battle, Says Industry Body, as Experts Express Doubts


May 15, 2023 - The global coal industry must shift to a model that cuts emissions and helps drive economic development if the sector, which is responsible for the largest portion of carbon pollution, is to remain relevant as climate concerns grow, a leading coal body said on Monday.

The World Coal Association (WCA), the industry’s largest body, said its members believe in meeting the goals of the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement and the need for greater investment in cleaner forms of energy, including renewables.

WCA members also include Coal India, China National Coal Association as well as Australian and United States coal miners.

“If you want to meet communities’ expectations today, if you want to be a player that has a licence to operate, you have to address development and decarbonisation,” WCA chief executive Michelle Manook told The Straits Times on the eve of a major coal conference in Singapore on Tuesday.

From production to transporting the fuel to burning it in power plants and steel and cement plants, the coal industry must clean up its act, she said.

And any new investments must be more efficient and shift towards capturing planet-warming carbon emissions, she added, referring to carbon capture, utilisation and storage of emissions, or CCUS.

This involves capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the smoke stacks, for example, and storing for future use or pumping into underground reservoirs, a step many experts have expressed concerns over.


She acknowledged the increasingly polarised global debate about the future of coal, which is the dirtiest of fossil fuels and has triggered health issues across the globe.

But, she said, there are technologies which can remove up to 99 per cent of coal pollutants and deploying this was part of creating what she called a responsible and sustainable coal value chain.

In addition, she said the true value of coal in the economic development of nations, especially developing nations, was often overlooked, and it was not possible to simply phase out coal in a matter of years.

It is a view shared by WCA chairman July Ndlovu, who is also chief executive of South African coal miner Thungela.

“I think part of what makes the transition out of coal tough sometimes is because of the failure to recognise that there are regions and/or countries that are far more dependent on the coal economy than others,” he said, pointing to South Africa, India and China, nations that remain heavily reliant on coal for power and industrial uses, such as steel and cement making.

He said transitioning to renewables would be preferable in cases where coal power plants are old, and it is too costly to upgrade them to lower-emissions equipment.

“But I’m also saying to fix what we’ve got,” he said, referring to cleaning up existing plants and coal production.

World Coal Association CEO Michelle Manook (right) and chairman July Ndlovu both agree that it is not possible to simply phase out coal in a matter of years. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The IPCC, the United Nations climate science panel, and organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), say phasing out coal is one of the most important steps needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

And while CCUS is regarded by the IEA and IPCC as an important tool to reduce emissions, only recently has investment started to flow into it and carbon capture is a long way off from cutting emissions at scale.

In an analysis published in 2022, the IEA said 35 commercial CCUS facilities were in operation globally, with a total annual capture capacity of almost 45 million tonnes of CO2. That is a fraction of the roughly 40 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted annually.

“The coal industry is in complete denial,” said Dr Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, a Berlin-based climate science and policy think-tank.

“The IEA’s net-zero pathway and our own analysis make it clear that the developed world has to stop burning coal by 2030, and the developing world by 2040 – to keep warming to 1.5 degrees,” he said, referring to a key temperature limit of the Paris Agreement.

He said the coal industry has been talking about CCUS and other technologies for years. “Everyone in this game can remember the promises of ‘CCS-ready power stations just around the corner’. And everyone knows that didn’t happen, so the time is up.”

Others challenged the view that coal plants were key to economic development of poorer nations.

“The coal industry is living in a very strange bubble if it thinks that communities are going to pick coal over cleaner alternatives,” said Mr Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember, a London-based climate and energy think-tank.

“Wind and solar are not limited to developed countries. They already generate 12 per cent of the world’s electricity, and are spread across most countries in the world already.”  

The price of solar and wind is now much cheaper in most nations than coal or gas power plants. And current import costs of coal, in addition to high oil and gas prices, are a financial burden, he said.

“It may not mean a rapid total phaseout of coal power, but it does mean to stop building new coal plants, closing the least efficient and expensive coal plants, and demoting coal to a backup role in the electricity mix,” he added.

Mr Ndlovu agreed that in future, large amounts of coal-fired power generation will be replaced globally.

“I don’t think that there’s any dispute in that. But one has to recognise that if you’re going to provide secure, reliable and affordable energy systems as we have got today, coal is going to play a role.”