With the COP21 climate change treaty coming into force on November 5, stories about India’s rapidly declining air quality – New Delhi’s air pollution reached a mind-numbing, record-breaking 999 micrograms per cubic meter (40 times the safe limit) on October 31 – can only persuade decision-makers that the current status quo is untenable. Indeed, with the data on carbon emissions clearly showing that the earth is getting warmer, that weather patterns are becoming ever more unpredictable, and that societies are sicker from mounting pollution-related complications, the world’s transition to clean sources of energy simply can’t wait any longer.
There is, however, a greater truth, a truth not ordained by facts, but by the technological challenges associated with reducing CO2 emissions to the levels mandated by the COP21. While there is a consensus that renewables should occupy a larger slice of the global energy mix, emerging countries remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels, especially on coal. Despite an encouraging report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the capacity production of renewables has surpassed that of coal for the first time, the agency also forecast a 33 percent increase in the use of coal by 2040.
When it comes to renewables, the capacity to produce power does not relate to actual production, since, for example, the sun does not always shine, nor does the wind always blow. This is what’s known as the problem of intermittency in energy policy parlance. Germany, for instance, provides the best example of what happens when traditional energy production means are drastically replaced with renewables. The Energiewende program of retiring the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022 and replacing them with green technology is undoubtedly the most ambitious such experiment in the world.
However, despite scuttling Germany’s nuclear program en masse, renewables were unable to make up the shortfall, forcing the country to require help from an old foe, coal. Indeed, coal is now being burned at ever-higher rates, reaching its highest level in Germany’s energy output in 20 years in 2013. Since the price per megawatt of energy produced by the country’s brand new solar panels and energy turbines is significantly higher than that of nuclear reactors, many companies (from chemicals maker BASF to carbon fiber producer SGL Carbon) have been relocating abroad in order to save costs.
The IEA’s coal forecast largely refers to developing countries, with India being routinely named as the main force driving up coal consumption. The reason for that had been discussed at length during the negotiations leading up to the COP21 – renewables are simply too expensive to satisfy the imperative of providing power to the hundreds of millions of people that have no access to electricity. The Indian case is a telling example: the reasons for the country’s incessant energy demand are numerous, but the key driver is urbanization. While instrumental in promoting economic growth, urbanization highlights the need for increased energy production, especially for the traditionally energy-intensive construction sector. The sheer scale of the urbanization trend is breathtaking: the EIA is forecasting that 315 million Indians will move to cities by 2040.
Moreover, even if environmentalists should be applauded for their unrelenting fight in creating awareness and shaping policy, their determined spirit may have caused a blinkered belief against traditional forms of electricity production that have triggered an inability to engage in unbiased debate. Many voices proclaim that the continued use of coal will do more harm than good and echo the words of Pan Yue, former vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, who said in 2005, “The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”
Unfortunately, most commentators disregard the effective technologies being employed that limit carbon emissions. Indeed, for the 2,400 additional coal-fired power plants planned or under construction, two-thirds of which are in China and India, technological know-how can represent a sure-fire way to curb the environmental (and economic) damage incurred by burning fossil fuels.
While carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been widely discussed in this context, it is not the sole tool in the sequestration of carbon emission toolbox, thereby making “clean coal” possible. Proven, off-the-shelf technologies such as high efficiency, low emission (HELE) coal-fired power plants are a reality and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 20 percent across the entire sector. Carbon Clean Solutions Limited (CCSL), an Anglo-Indian firm, has demonstrated the viability of a “coal scrubbing” technology by capturing 97 percent of carbon emissions form a coal-fired plant in Chennai, India. This technology has not only been lauded for its effectiveness, but also for its lower cost when compared to similar processes, making it a viable economic proposition for countries like India.
It is imperative then that an ideal balance be struck between the advantages of economic progress that alleviates poverty and the damaging effects of climate change and air and water pollution. In the wake of the COP22 in Morocco, dialogue should be sustained so as to push policy formation that addresses both concerns. A combination of existing and newfangled technologies in curbing emissions from coal may help render coal more environmentally friendly, allowing for a gradual and sensible transition to cleaner energy sources in the global energy landscape.
Andrew Witthoeft is a EU affairs adviser for an international consulting firm.