Like it or not, coal is vital to Asia’s growth

Those calling on China and India to ‘kick the coal habit’, and opt for less sooty forms of energy, overlook the vast benefits of coal-use for those nations.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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In Sydney all last week, economic leaders and ministers from 21 nations held the annual meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). Rich members of the organisation (Canada, the US, Japan, Australia) rubbed shoulders with poorer ones (China, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Mexico and Peru). Among the issues on the table? Climate change.

Fair enough. What is not so fair, however, is for Western commentators to use the APEC summit to hector China, South East Asia, Korea and also India, a non-member of APEC, about what economists call ‘choice of technique’ in energy supply. These nations, Western environmentalist opinion now insists, should eschew the use of coal and instead embrace cleaner forms of energy.

Welcome to the haughty presumptions and condescending commands of Green Imperialism. The East, we are told, should not follow Cardiff, King Coal and the dirty Victorian way. It should not develop by following the path of soot along which, in decades gone by, we in the West so foolishly mired ourselves. Rather, the East should face up to its twenty-first century planetary responsibilities, and accept that its current enthusiasm for coal (but also its enthusiasm for cleaner nuclear energy) is dangerously misplaced.

Paul Brannen, head of campaigns at Christian Aid, expressed the new dogma in a letter to the UK Guardian: ‘Carbon has fuelled the rich world’s wealth and development. But the devastating impact of climate change means that poor countries cannot now develop in the same way.’ (1) Coal, it is felt, is ‘not an option’ for the developing world. Yet in fact, coal will be an important source of energy for the whole world for many decades to come.

In 2005, there were just over 700 billion tonnes of reserves of hard coal and lignite in the Earth. North America had about 200 billion, Russia and its environs 150 billon, India and China 75 billon each, and South Africa 40 billion. The contribution of coal to power generation in different countries reflects its disposition: in 2003, it accounted for half the power generated in the US, two-thirds of that in India, 79 per cent of China’s power, and 93 per cent of South Africa’s (2). Altogether, coal is far from being a legacy of the nineteenth century. Though it was vital to the industrialisation of Britain then, it remains a sine qua non for three of the key economies of the twenty-first century – America, India and China.

The installed base of coal-fired power plants cannot be wished away as an outdated relic. Without coal, there would be no future for energy and indeed civilisation in large parts of the world. Moreover, though mining coal remains dangerous – especially in China – coal is cheap compared with other sources of fuel.

Cheapness is important to developing nations: they are as yet in little position to substitute other, more expensive energy sources for coal. Even China, with all the US Treasury bonds it owns, cannot afford to invest, either at home or abroad, in alternative fuels on the scale that would allow it to leave coal behind. What’s more, coal is a key national resource for China and India. It is vital to something that environmentalists usually talk up: energy security.

Environmentalist thinkers and activists always feared international dependence in energy – particularly dependence on oil in the Middle East. From the green point of view, energy should always be local. However, the local nature of coal for countries like India and China is not seen as a benefit. Yet when accused of double standards, environmentalists point to the heavy carbon emissions that use of coal leads to. Those emissions are an incontestable fact. But what certainly can be contested is greens’ dismissal of a technology that could make a difference to the way we use coal: carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is an approach which attempts to mitigate global warming by capturing the CO2 that is emitted from power plants and subsequently storing it instead of allowing it to be released into the atmosphere.

For all their mantra-like invocations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, greens rarely mention the fact that even the IPCC favours CCS: it names CCS as one of its ‘key technologies’ for mitigating CO2 emissions (3). It’s true that CCS is in its infancy, and it’s also true that so far, capitalism is, as usual, not rushing to make the investments that will be required to test and then apply an innovation like CCS. But solar and wind power are also in need of major research and technological advance if ever they are to be a useful and efficient part of the world’s energy portfolio: scientists in Japan and China, which are particularly expert in photovoltaic panels, will agree that really competitive devices are 20 or 30 years away. So why, if greens believe the price and viability of renewable energy will come right in time, do so many of them hold a means of dealing with emissions, such as CCS, to be a non-starter?

The answer is that, behind their hostility to coal and CCS, is something much bigger than the important issues of carbon emissions and the need to make the right, dispassionate choice of technique in energy supply. Environmentalists are selective in their optimism because they want to repudiate the twentieth century, not just the coal that, in large part, made that century happen. A little like Lady Macbeth, they guiltily want the dark spots of Western affluence removed. They have premonitions of doom, and are disillusioned with economic growth at home. As a result, they stigmatise burgeoning development in Asia, and especially the coal that fuels it, as a catastrophe.

British journalist and author John Harris makes this Grimperialist vision of the East clear enough. Coal, he says, is on a roll; while India will construct more than 100 coal-fired plants over the next decade, China is building an average of two coal-fired power stations a week. In the process, Harris says, China has become ‘that rapidly advancing dystopia where rivers run black’ (4). Not to be outdone, green activist and writer Jeremy Leggett, in another lengthy polemic against coal, used the occasion of the APEC summit to insist that most of the remaining coal in the world ‘has to stay in the ground if we are to avoid climate catastrophe’. He adds that it would be ‘surprising’ if the APEC summit offered any hope of the world ‘kicking the coal habit’ (5).

But what could be a more destructive and indeed dystopian addiction than to forbid China and countries like it from using coal, one of their principal indigenous means to develop? The green conception imagines that one must be scrubbed clean of coal before one can aspire to be wealthy. In the real world, a nation nearly always finds its early stages of economic growth chaotic, if not dangerous. But with expanding wealth, different societies have the chance to take care of their members and their natural environment more rigorously.

To expect the once-poor nations of Asia to lead a coal-free, unblemished energy regime is ridiculous. Through coal-fired development now, if that is its choice, Asia will build the capacity to undo environmental damage – both damage done now, and that done later. But without coal, Asia will never have the wherewithal to pay for environmental improvements.

That, however, does not deter the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In Coming Clean: The Truth and Future of Coal in Asia Pacific, a special report launched to coincide with the APEC summit, the WWF quotes research suggesting that the ‘external’ costs of coal use in terms of its effect on China’s health, air and water pollution and greenhouse gases would reach at least 2.8 per cent of GDP in 2020. Using the same research, the WWF said that, with 11.6 percent of the world’s total coal reserves, China would dominate the world’s coal industry for generations to come (6). The WWF’s solution? ‘In China, an energy tax, applicable to all consumers of coal, including the manufacturing, power generation and industrial sectors, as well as civil use, could span the gap between coal’s current value and its true social cost’. In other words – the Chinese people can be allowed to keep some of their use of coal, but should face up to the need to make it more expensive.

For an organisation still popularly associated with the Chinese panda, the WWF’s call for the Chinese masses to pay more for their coal-fired energy is far from cuddly. But then, the research quoted by the WWF was something unavailable on the web, yet commissioned from the Energy Foundation (EF), a San Francisco partnership of eight wealthy American foundations that proclaims itself ‘interested in solving the world’s energy problems’ – particularly those in the US and… China (7). The EF’s constituent foundations include the $8 billion William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Hewlett being one half of Hewlett Packard (8); and, predictably enough, the umbrella EF has a special and peremptory campaign named the China Sustainable Energy Programme (9).

Enough. It is for Asia, not Western commentators, the WWF or philanthropic American trusts, to decide how Asia should generate its energy. Any other stance condemns Asia’s masses to yet more servitude: there is something profoundly inhumane in the demand that Asia stop using coal despite the fact that its coal-use has brought vast benefits for its once-poor populations. Hands off Asia’s energy policy!

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen raised three cheers for China’s economic miracle. Brendan O’Neill said Chinese toys are not killing our children, and said that the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was a small price to pay for the transformation of that river into a source of work and energy for vast swathes of mankind. Nathalie Rothschild pointed out that where China was once criticised for its ‘red authoritarianism’ it now wins plaudits for its eco-authoritarianism. Sheila Lewis asked whether the rise of China should be seen as a threat or an opportunity for the West. Or read more at spiked issue China and Energy.

(1) Coal not an option for developing world, Guardian, 3 September 2007

(2) Meeting Our Energy Needs – driving forward coal’s role in a clean, clever and competitive energy future, International Energy Agency Coal Industry Advisory Board, 9 November 2005

(3) Climate Change 2007 – Mitigation of Climate Change: Summary for Policymakers, 4 May 2007

(4) The great global coal rush puts us on the fast track to irreversible disaster is free, Guardian, 30 August 2007

(5) Kings of the coal habit, Guardian, 5 September 2007

(6) See website here

(7) See the EF website

(8) See the Hewlett website

(9) See the EF website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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