Coal is not the answer to ending extreme poverty, report states

A bulldozer pushes a mountain of coal. Calvert City, September 2010. (Credit: Kentucky Photo File / Flickr)

President-elect Donald Trump may be coal’s loudest champion, but the case for coal, especially in reducing poverty, is quickly waning.

More than 120 organizations issued a statement Thursday calling on global leaders to end all forms of public support for coal expansion or to even renounce it completely in the world’s wealthiest nations.

“The coal industry claims that expanding coal use is critical to fighting extreme poverty and improving energy access for billions of people in developing countries. In fact, the opposite is true,” read the statement released by Christian Aid on behalf of all the signees.

The statement is based on a recent paper by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which contends that coal expansion will not only violate the Paris Agreement to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it actually stands in the way of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including universal access to energy.

According to the paper, the role of coal in reducing extreme poverty has been overblown, especially in China – a model of economic growth for many developing nations. Although coal has powered much of the industrialization in East Asia and particularly China, the eradication of extreme poverty actually preceded the coal consumption boom.

“In China between 1981 and 2004, the number of people living on less than $1 per day declined by 500 million. Two-thirds of this progress occurred between 1981 and 1987, prior to China’s industrialization and large-scale expansion in coal power,” the report said.

Instead, it was widespread agricultural reforms that lifted most of those people out of extreme poverty. Industrialization ramped up between 1987 and 1999 and with it coal consumption. But it wasn’t until after 1999 that coal expansion really took off, fueling income gains among wealthier groups.

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(Credit: ODI)

That same pattern of inequity can be seen in many other energy-poor communities that actually live “frustratingly close” to power grids. Yet, cost, poor quality distribution lines and, above all, politics prevent access despite an increasing supply.

“Power sector mismanagement and political capture often prevent utilities from turning new electricity supply into new connections – or even lower prices for existing poor consumers,” the report said.

But for 84 percent of energy-poor households, distance is the primary barrier. Large energy providers are often reluctant to distribute to these rural, often poor households, when the payout would be minimal for a new costly, time-consuming power plant and grid.

Instead, coal plants around the world are expanding surplus capacity, instead of access. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people living without electricity but very little coal development or available reserves. Meanwhile China, now with very high access to electricity, has the largest number of current and planned coal plants. The coal industry may argue it needs to stick around for the poor, but even now it’s not serving them.

For the households too far from from a main grid, decentralized stand-alone and mini-grid solutions such as wind and solar are much faster to deploy and increasingly more cost-effective.

In fact, the cost of generating electricity from solar photovoltaic fell by more than 80 percent in the U.S. since 2009, according to the report; cost from wind fell by more than 60 percent. Globally, cost from solar PV more than halved, while cost from wind fell by more than 18 percent. Especially in developing countries where coal sometimes has to be imported, renewables can be very cost-competitive.

But in coal-dependent countries like the U.S., phasing out coal in favor of renewables can feel like pulling out the rug from under an entire working force.

“We’re going to get those miners back to work,” Trump said in a speech after winning Indiana in the primary election. “The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania … Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”

However, renewable energy industries already employ more people globally than the coal industry. Solar, bioenergy, wind, hydro and geothermal combined employed 9.4 million people in 2015 compared to the latest figure of 7 million in 2012 provided by the World Coal Association.

As the number one emitter of carbon emissions and a major driver of climate change, burning coal also contributes directly to increasingly severe weather patterns. Disasters like floods and droughts result in humanitarian crises, food insecurity, conflicts and migration. Mining also displaces communities, competes with farmers and households for resources in water stressed areas, and pollutes air and water. Coal is not only ineffective in reducing energy poverty; it entrenches poverty.

In China, coal-fired power is estimated to cause 260,000 to 670,000 premature deaths annually, according to the paper. Vietnam estimates about 43,000 deaths due to coal-fired power annually that would jump an additional 35,000 deaths with planned capacity.

In order to abide by the Paris Agreement – which Trump has vowed he will back out of – 88 percent of known coal reserves need to be considered unburnable. “Clean coal,” which Trump mentions often, still emits far more pollutants than even oil or gas, and carbon capture technology is not realistically viable. Even if it were viable, the paper says, 82 percent of coal reserves would need to remain untouched, according to the paper.

“…If the entire region implements the coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished,” World Bank President Jim Kim said in May. “That would spell disaster for us and our planet.”

That’s especially true for the poor, who suffer first and worst from climate change. As the authors of the paper said, “Poor people can ill afford the health, environmental and social burden of polluting technologies. Poor economies can ill afford the economic burden to their development.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.