Kiribati and the Future of Coal


The people of the low-lying islands of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean are possibly the least responsible for climate change, and yet the most exposed to the consequences of it. Every high tide now carries with it the potential for damage and flooding. These people know first hand that climate change is not just an environmental crisis; it is also a human rights disaster.

Last week I visited the president of Kirabati, Anote Tong. He is a man who is watching his nation slowly drown due to sea level rises brought on by climate change. I was present when he made the groundbreaking call to world leaders to end new coal mines. In a letter sent to world leaders attending the climate conference in Paris in November, the president said:

“Let us join together as a global community and take action now. The construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP 21 in Paris, whilst stopping new coal mine constructions NOW will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical.”

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Where the Pope has taken a moral lead against fossil fuels, and global markets inexorably drag king coal off its throne, President Tong has taken the political lead. The question is, will other leaders join him?

Irrespective of the answer to this political question, the answer to the future of coal is the same – there isn’t one. The only way for coal to shuffle its “walking dead” body into a new decade is for nation states to continue subsidizing it. According to the IMF, energy subsidies in 2015 are projected to be $5.3 trillion, or equivalent to $10 million a minute every day. If the “cost” to the environment was taken into account, it would be much, much more. Attempting to revive a dying industry that is harming the planet makes no sense – but partisan, nationally based politics often don’t. This is what makes Tong’s call for solidarity so timely and so important.

Factors such as low prices, increased rail deliveries of crude oil and “just-in-time” inventory management for power plants have contributed to coal’s woes, but the cultural and political shift should not be underestimated. With support from the global community, Tong’s pledge could move us away from coal in a constructive manner, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of the market. It must be stopped via a global commitment that includes a planned and just transition for the workers and communities currently reliant upon the industry.

Market tipping points are seldom forecast, and often only identified with hindsight. The agreement between China and the U.S. in November last year proved such a tipping point for coal. Over the past 12 months, the reality of coal’s fading future has been reflected in financial markets. For a long time investors ignored the risk associated with coal; hedging their bets that a global deal on the climate would not be realized. But of course the logical question would then be: what is the investment strategy for a plus 4 or 6 degree world?

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that while coal demand grew at an annual rate of nearly 4 percent, coal demand could still peak as early as 2016. And yet, despite this, several countries are actively pursuing a policy to expand their coal industry. Indonesia, India, South Africa and Australia are looking to increase coal exports, and in turn exporting climate change to the world. This works against common sense, human health, and the financial prospects of a soon-to-be eclipsed industry.

The outrageous accusation that those that oppose coal are anti-development must be refuted vigorously. This argument for jobs is a cry from an industry in demise, especially if we take into consideration the growth of decent jobs in an ever expanding renewable energy sector. For instance, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that the renewable energy sector employed 7.7 million people in 2014 –  an 18 percent increase from 2013. These jobs do not come with health risks for workers and the communities that live around coal mines, nor for the communities whose health is affected from air pollution from coal.

As a global community we cannot on the one hand claim to be taking action for the climate, while on the other continue to expand the most destructive of fuels. World leaders now have the opportunity to show some concern, responsibility and courage and support this coal moratorium in the lead up to the Paris climate talks in December.

Dr. Kumi Naidoo is the Executive Director at Greenpeace International

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