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King coal, climate change & Jamaica

Posted on November 18, 2013 at 8:10 AM

With coal still reportedly on the cards for Jamaica, now struggling under the weight of a burdensome oil bill, the island could well take instructions from Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as to next steps.


Speaking at the International Coal and Climate Summit, which opened here Monday — alongside the ongoing United Nations climate change talks — Figueres appeared sensitive to the needs of countries like Jamaica while at the same time making a strong case for changes in the global coal industry.


“There are some who, deeply concerned about the devastating effects of climate change already felt by vulnerable populations around the world, are calling for the immediate shut down of all coal plants.There are others who think that coal does not have to change at all, that we can continue to extract and burn as we have done in the past,” she said.


“The first view does not take into account the immediate needs of nations looking to provide reliable energy to rapidly growing populations in pursuit of economic development and poverty eradication. The second view does not take into account the immediate need for climate stability on this planet, necessary for the wellbeing of present and future generations,” Figueres added.


She suggests that there is perhaps a middle ground, if you can call it that — that can be reached since it is one that requires significant changes within the industry. The industry, she said, needs to simultaneously diversify beyond coal and put in place measures to cut their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


And there is no way out of it — even given all that king coal has done for developed economies today.

“Coal was at the heart of the developed world’s Industrial Revolution and brought affordable energy to the developing world.


However, while society has benefitted from coal-fuelled development, we now know there is an unacceptably high cost to human and environmental health,” she said.

“The science is clear. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report outlines our predicament. We are at unprecedented GHG concentrations in the atmosphere; our carbon budget is half spent. If we continue to meet energy needs as we have in the past, we will overshoot the internationally agreed goal to limit warming to less than two degree Celsius. AR5 is not science fiction, it is science fact,” Figueres added.


It is, undoubtedly, time for a change, she said. Specifically she suggested:

• closing all existing subcritical plants (those operating below the critical point of water and which are less efficient when compared to other plants);

• implementing safe CCUS (Carbon Capture, Use and Storage) on all new plants, even the most efficient; and

• leaving most existing reserves in the ground.


“These are not marginal or trivial changes, these are transformations that go to the core of the coal industry, and many will say it simply cannot be done. But the phrase 'where there’s a will, there's a way' is tantamount to human history because will precedes innovation, and innovation precedes transformation. John F. Kennedy called for putting man on the moon in 10 years at a point when no one knew how that would be done,” she argued.

“We must transform coal with the same determination, the same perseverance, the same will. We must be confident that if we set an ambitious course to low-emissions, science and technology will rapidly transform systems. Above all, you must invest in this potential, because the coal industry has the most to gain by leveraging the existing capital, knowledge and capacity to transform itself,” Figueres added.


In the end, she noted, not only will the climate benefit, but also the industry itself. “You are here today as coal industry leaders, but you can also understand yourselves as long-term energy supply leaders. Some major oil, gas and energy technology companies are already investing in renewables, and I urge those of you who have not yet started to join them,” she encouraged.

“By diversifying your portfolio beyond coal, you too can produce clean energy that reduces pollution, enhances public health, increases energy security and creates new jobs. 
By diversifying beyond coal, you reduce the risk of stranded assets and make yourselves ready to reap the rewards of a green economy,” Figueres added.


Beyond the money card, The UNFCCC executive secretary also used the generation card to get through to the coal industry leaders. “I invite you to use this Climate and Coal Summit to decide how you are going to step up to the challenge of contributing to real climate change solutions. We must urgently take the steps that put us on an ambitious path to global peaking by the end of this decade, and zero-net emissions by the second half of the century,” she said.

“Steps that look past next quarter’s bottom line and see next generation’s bottom line, and steps to figure health, security and sustainability into the bottom line. 
For it will be your children and my children, our grandchildren and their grandchildren who will look back at today and judge our collective commitment to them. They must be able to look back and recognise this summit as a historic turning point for the coal industry,” Figueres added.


So where does all this leave Jamaica?

Giving serious second thought to going coal, one would think. For one thing, Figueres suggests LEAVING most existing reserves in the ground. For another, there are few cases of tried and true CCUS that works the interest of the pockets of coal industry players as well as that of the climate.


Of course, as Figueres herself has said — speaking at a press conference following her presentation at the coal summit — it is up to individual countries to make their own decisions as to their energy and climate future. Said Figueres: “Every country is sovereign and establishes the way that country wishes to pursue its sustainable development”. It is now over to you, Jamaica.


— Petre Williams-Raynor 


Photo by: UNclimatechange/Flickr

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