Clinging to Coal: A New Report Belabors Increasing Use by Many Nations

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Coal burning not only costs more to produce than some cleaner resources, but it also leads to premature deaths, a report from Oxfam says. UNDRIM ALIU/UN

SHANGHAI — Coal use by some of the world’s most advanced societies — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, known as the Group of 7 — has been increasing deaths and disease globally, Oxfam International, a consortium of 17 affiliates fighting poverty, found recently in a report titled “Let Them Eat Coal.”

The report, published in June, was released as part of Oxfam’s advocacy ahead of the much-anticipated United Nations climate negotiations in December in Paris. The report argues that rich countries have the responsibility and capacity to stem climate change by reducing their dependence on coal, yet it also acknowledges that burning of fossil fuels in China and India is adding significantly to global carbon emissions.

In the report, Oxfam looks at all countries’ past emissions and the proportion of their citizens who earn above a global poverty line of $9,000 a person each year to calculate that the G7 countries hold 50 percent of historical responsibility for causing climate change and 67 percent of current global financial capacity to address it.

As such, although China now burns almost the same amount of coal as the rest of the world combined and is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the report says that the country has only 7 percent of current global financial capacity to grapple with climate change. India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but the report says it has only 0.03 percent of global financial capacity to tackle climate change.

Oxfam expects the ability of China and India to cope with climate change to increase as they become richer, although it does say that China’s coal consumption has already peaked because of an aggressive switch to renewable energy.

Among the G7 countries, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan increased their coal use after the last UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the report says. Germany, Italy and Japan are also planning to build more coal power plants.

This is despite the fact that burning coal has been the biggest single cause of climate change since 1850, responsible for a third of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to statistics by the International Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the auspices of the UN.

Developed countries now produce an outsize proportion of these emissions. The G7 countries, for instance, are emitting as much carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as the entire African continent, says the International Energy Agency, an advisory body to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose membership is wealthy countries.

At the same time, climate change disproportionately affects poorer countries that have the least ability to manage. From 2005 to 2014, approximately 77 percent of people who died from climate-related disasters and 98 percent of those most affected by climate change lived in developing countries, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization.

Coal also has a large negative effect on people in developed countries. In the US, for example, 13,200 people died prematurely directly as a result of coal-fired power plants in 2010 — the latest year for which figures were available, the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit group, reports.

Even more people in the US are indirectly affected by coal use. The Environmental Protection Agency found that 72 percent of toxic water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, making coal plants the main source of toxic water pollution. The monetized value of adverse health effects attributable to existing coal plants in the US exceeds $100 billion a year.

It also costs more in dollars to produce coal power than some cleaner alternatives. Lazard Ltd., an investment bank based in New York, calculates that without subsidies and including capital costs, it takes $37 to $81 to generate a single megawatt hour of electricity using onshore wind farms in the US, compared with $66 to $151 to generate the same amount of electricity through coal power.

Oxfam urges the G7 countries to commit to direct government action to urgently transition from coal. Such action could include supporting the use of renewable energy through subsidies and passing legislation to stop the building of coal power plants and phase out existing ones.

In the US, the Obama administration is making strides toward reducing reliance on coal. Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email: “In September 2013, EPA announced proposed standards for new power plants and in June 2014 proposed the Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Since 2009, the US has increased solar electricity generation by more than twenty-fold, and tripled electricity production from wind power.”

Reducing or stopping the use of coal in other G7 countries is meeting opposition from businesses and right-leaning politicians. Given the powerful interests of the coal industry worldwide, it is not a given that the Paris climate change summit meeting — whose main goal is to pass a universal treaty to reduce carbon emissions — will succeed. The UN entities responsible for the conference, however, project optimism, hoping to keep the momentum going.

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Tendai Musakwa

Tendai Musakwa

Originally from Zimbabwe, Tendai Musakwa is a journalist who has written for China Offshore, Invest In, ChinaFile, the China Africa Project and other publications. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and Chinese from Vassar College and a master's degree in Chinese studies from Oxford University. He reports on development, finance and international relations and lives in Shanghai.

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