Ailing Climate Negotiations and the Future of Coal

By Saliem Fakir · 11 Aug 2010

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Picture credit: Jono Brennan
Picture credit: Jono Brennan

What is uncertain for one is also not certain for the other.

Following last year’s Copenhagen Climate Summit, the five days of negotiations in Bonn last week in preparation for the big climate change meeting in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year, has been met by a profound display of disinterest. 

Every step forward has been replied with a two-steps backward intervention by countries that hold the key to global action on climate. It looks like Copenhagen’s indistinct outcomes are to be repeated all over again.

Ailing climate change negotiations are being treated as a boon for climate denialists and the fossil fuel industry. But the boon will be short-lived as climate denialism brings with it a certain blind spot and smugness that the jury is in favour of a more carbon intense world.

It would be delusional to think that the failure of these negotiations must mean procrastination in transforming our fossil dependency. Where international failings deny global collectivism against carbon intensity, local action is on the rise, even in countries like the United States.

We may not be able to just unwind from fossil fuels in the immediate future, but neither is it feasible to hold such strong faith that the fossil fuel world will last forever. We are in the throes of a transition to a new energy system. Social, environmental and economic uncertainties are converging to create this force for change within the existing fossil dependent paradigm. It’s not happening as fast as we would like it to, but the sign of some change is imminent.

It is for this reason that the retort that there is sufficient coal to last us a hundred years will be sorely tested. This is particularly relevant for South Africa, which has a high coal dependency.

Close to 90% of our electricity is derived from coal, as are 40% of liquid fuels. In the next ten years, the best deposits in Mmpumalanga will have reached peaked. New deposits will have to be mined from the Waterberg (Limpopo) area where the deposits are not easily accessible, nor the best coal to mine.

The deposits are vast but the devil is in the detail as to what is economically recoverable as well as the quality of what can be mined.  This raises immediate questions about the false sense of security we may have in our own ‘abundant’ coal.

Social pressures against coal are nothing new. If one studies early English history, especially (1700-1900s), at the time when the burning of coal smogged out places like London, there were movements aimed at trying to stop coal.

England had no option but to increase its reliance on coal as the English had used up most of the trees available to them from the surrounding woodlands.

This was the time of Samuel Pepys. He wrote extensively in his diaries about the smog and squalor associated with the industrialisation of Britain. But with it came the price of bad air and health problems.

His contemporary John Evelyn wrote a famous book called, Fumifugium, seeking innovative solutions to deal with London smog by planting trees across corridors creating a sort of urban lung to deal with the smog and smoke that spewed out of chimneystacks. It was one of the first, but not last, of early clean air solutions for smog and grime that seemed out of control.

Similarly, in the early 1900s, a group of middle and upper class housewives led a movement in New York to deal with coal related pollution from the burning of coal in homes. They were successful in getting the city to pass laws that ensured that coal smoke was reduced or used in ways that did not lead to smog and accumulation of soot.

Opposition to coal is nothing new, but its shear abundance and cheapness has held sway. We have continued to use it and shoved, as a result of the benefits of electrification, the problem of coal to some far off power station and mine, far from the eyes of urban dwellers that no longer suffer smoke and smog problems.

The pollution persists and is now the cause of greenhouse gas accumulations in the atmosphere. But, it has in a sense become somebody else’s problem – quickly transiting from a local problem to one, which is global in dimension.

Coal’s new challenge is not smoke, soot or in the heyday of London’s glory the problem of greying and the blackening of clothing and buildings. The problem of coal today is the carbon intensity of our economy and the world’s economy.

Neither is the future of coal helped if we add the weight of the problems associated with its other natural sister, oil. The intensification of the use of oil, particularly, the encroachment into new and riskier resource locations like the deep sea, Arctic Circle, and tar sands only helps to mount the social pressure against carbon intense sources of fuels. These new sources are far from easy to access and clean.

There is a second feature about fossil fuels that is creating a certain bad faith between producer and consumer: the unruly nature of the markets. Price volatility associated with oil, and somewhat with coal, is leaving governments and consumers vulnerable, especially those highly dependent on the import of the resource.

The volatility, especially price rises, as we have seen for oil in the past creates an inflationary spiral that is felt in the fuel tank and in food prices. These are essential commodities for the continuity of existing life without heightening the burden of anxiety that people already face about the future.

In light of this, in his book - Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization - Jeff Rubin argues, “Not only must we decouple our economy from oil but we must re-engineer our lives to adapt to a world of growing energy scarcity.”

What is true for oil may be true for coal. For coal it may not yet be the end, through the natural depletion of the resource, but the redundancy may come sooner because of social pressure and the strategic economic importance of not placing all of one’s eggs into one basket. 

The future of fossil fuels, in particular coal, is no longer straightforward. A new set of global norms regarding the use of fossil fuels has become strident. This combination of the development of low carbon solutions and future uncertainty regarding the availability of fossil fuels is placing pressure on both the coal and oil industries.

Pressure to shift towards alternatives is coming from several fronts:

1. We live in a completely different normative world compared to the days of Samuel Pepys. Concerns about the environment are far more mainstream than in those days.

2. Coal and oil are also sources of conflict with local communities and in the case of oil; conflicts are national and geo-political in nature. They add a risk and cost premium to securing the resource.

3. Energy security is the biggest single global issue at present and in the future and energy itself is the source of major geo-political shifts. Countries that have the highest ratio of dependence on energy imports will seek to increasingly shift away from their dependency.

4. Prudent governments are hedging future options to lower the risk of exposure that comes from fossil fuel dependence through price volatility and rent seeking by those who control the resource.

5. The growing confidence and maturity of investments and developments in low carbon technologies, like renewables, in itself generates organized special interest groups and alliances that will lobby hard for public and private spending to go in the direction of these low carbon solutions.

These shifts may not portend the death of the coal industry, but the world of coal 100 years ago is very different to the world of coal today and the same assumptions by which it lived before cannot be the same assumptions it can live by today.

The future, ironically, is being shaped despite the intensity of the growth and use of coal because the race to invent a new energy future is not waiting for the last sack of coal to be dug out. By then it will be too late.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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