G20: Reality bites for coal and climate change
Graham Readfern, 13th November 2014 The Guardian
Climate change almost forgotten in the cocoon of a coal sponsored energy forum in Brisbane
In the corporatised and coal-company sponsored cocoon of a pre-G20 talkfest in Brisbane, the burst of vocal protest came like a sudden jolt of the reality of life outside.
“Peabody – we don’t want your coal,” came the loud but brief interlude from seven young climate change campaigners who rose to their feet to shout down Glenn Kellow, the chief operating officer of Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest privately owned coal company.
The chants bounced around the ornate auditorium of Brisbane city hall for only 30 seconds or so, before the group joined hands and walked out into the scorching Brisbane sun.
Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest privately-owned coal company, was the sole sponsor of the Global Café energy event, plugged by organisers Brisbane Marketing as a chance to explore the challenges of powering the economies of the world.
Kellow, based in St Louis but originally from Australia, was in the middle of yet another pitch from the coal industry arguing their product is the “cheapest” and best way to get electricity to the 1.2 billion people in the world who currently don’t have it. He avoided the phrase “climate change”.
As I’ve written before, coal’s concern for the world’s poor is either a sudden onset of benevolence or a cynical ploy to use people’s genuine concern over poverty to sell more of their product.
Outside the entrance to the city hall, others from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition were handing out an open letter, co-signed by youth climate groups from 30 different countries. The letter reads:
We are compelled to write this letter because we believe that the coal lobby, led by Peabody Energy (the largest coal company in the world), is trying to unduly influence the outcome of the G20 Summit. Their agenda represents a threat to young people and future generations, and we urge you to listen to our message over that of vested interests.
They claim that their industry will benefit the world’s poor. But we know that the rapid expansion of the industry will cost those living under the poverty line their health and clean air – and they are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The AYCC produced a video mocking some of the claims made by Peabody Energy, coal industry figures and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Climate science denial
When The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg visited Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, the world’s biggest coal mine, getting the company to talk about climate change seemed to be an exercise in getting blood from a black lump of fossil fuel.
When Goldenberg eventually did extract a statement from the company’s corporate communications boss Viv Svec, she was told the company regarded climate change as a “modelled crisis” and that there was “still far more understanding that is required” to justify any concerns over the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions.
Svec said: “Climate concerns are a threat, to the extent that they lead to policies that hurt people”.
The company’s latest Annual Report is just as dismissive of the position held by every major science academy in the world, that CO2 is causing climate change and that this is a problem.
The report describes the impacts of coal combustion on climate change as being only “perceived”. The report says:
Concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion, including perceived impacts on global climate issues, are resulting in increased regulation of coal combustion in many jurisdictions and unfavorable lending policies by government-backed lending institutions and development banks toward the financing of new overseas coal-fueled power plants, and interest in further such regulation and policies, which could significantly affect demand for our products.
That’s a long-winded way of saying firms like Peabody Energy are seeing some writing on the wall for their industry while at the same time dismissing the entire field of climate-related science and its related disciplines as mere “perceptions” rather than reality.
Danish political scientist Dr Bjorn Lomborg, of the US based Copenhagen Consensus Center think tank, was also on Peabody Energy’s bill at the Brisbane event (curiously neither Brisbane Marketing, Peabody Energy or the think tank itself have been willing to disclose who asked Dr Lomborg to attend).
Lomborg also advocates that the world’s poor need “cheap” fossil fuelsand thinks that the world has many more important problems to face than climate change.
It is no secret that the cost of renewable energy technologies has been dropping like several sacks of stones.
John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute who spoke in opposition to Lomborg, remarked that he was the “token carbon offset” in a line up of speakers dominated by fossil fuel industry figures.
He told the audience that analysts were already predicting that large scale solar power would be “cheaper than coal in China and India within the next five to ten years” and that wind energy was already “at parity with new coal in India”.
In a later press conference, I asked Lomborg if there was a risk that by pushing fossil fuel power stations that last up to 40 years onto developing countries you effectively lock-in the world’s poor to expensive electricity (even before you factor in the costs of the impacts of climate change or health problems that come from burning the coal). Lomborg said:
Right now the [International Energy Agency] estimate that even by 2040 sub-Saharan Africa will get somewhere between two and four per cent of its energy from renewables… sorry from new green energy. They will unfortunately get about 30 to 35 per cent from wood and dung which they definitely shouldn’t be getting.
It seems a good bet that if you want to help the world’s poor you should get them on more power now and to a very large extent that’s going to be fossil fuels.
Lomborg is referring here to “primary energy” – that’s everything from oil for cars and generators to wood burned on fires to coal burned in power plants.
The International Energy Agency has just released a report on what it thinks will be happen to the energy mix in sub-Saharan Africa under its “new policies scenario”. Lomborg’s figures seem to be out of date.
The IEA says that in the year 2040, some 47 per cent of all energy in sub-Saharan Africa will come from burning biomass (wood, dung, coal etc) which it hopes will be burned in more efficient cookstoves that will reduce the health costs and deaths from indoor air pollution. Lomborg had this figure at 35 per cent.
By 2040, coal’s share of primary energy actually drops from 18 per cent to 15 per cent. Oil provides 17 per cent of energy, gas about 11 per cent and renewables about nine per cent (almost six per cent of this is from ‘new green energy’ such as solar and wind with the rest coming from hydro power).
But here’s the real kicker.
The IEA says its scenario for Africa is “broadly consistent” with global warming of between 3C and 6C for the continent by the end of this century with a wide array of dangerous and some might argue catastrophic impacts (some of which the IPCC says the continent would be powerless to adapt to).
What seems clear then is that the International Energy Agency’s “new policies scenario” is not particularly appetising for Africa.
Big emitters strike deal
But back to Brisbane.
Within minutes of the brief protest from youth climate campaigners, there was another injection of reality.
News began filtering through of the deal between the leaders of the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases – the United States and China.
The US would cut its emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025 and China promises its emissions will peak and start to fall by the year 2030 – all in the name of limiting global warming to 2C (whether these cuts are enough is questionable, with early analysis from one respected team of climate analysts suggesting even deeper cuts will be needed).
Inside the cocoon of an event where the main sponsors don’t accept that human caused climate change is even real, the news from Beijing seemed to further outline how rapidly the world could change – whether the coal industry likes it or not.
As for this weekend’s G20 Leaders Summit, Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been coming under pressure to find a place for climate change in the discussions.
If the issue is raised behind the closed-doors sessions, then it will be against Abbott’s wishes. Gone also, apparently, are discussions about cutting fossil fuel subsidies that have featured at previous G20 meetings (a new report finds G20 countries are subsidizing exploration for coal, oil and gas to the tune of US$88 billion a year – between $2.9 billion and $3.5 billion from Australia).
The contents of the glossy G20 “delegate publication” reveals much about how the hosts want world leaders to see the future.
In 158 pages of adverts, sponsored features, ministerial forewords and articles from academics and think tank fellows, there’s a barrage of impenetrable corporate management speak concerned with “growth”, “free trade” and “economic governance”.
The phrase “climate change” appears only four times. The first two pages are devoted to an advert for the mining industry.