UN climate chief Christiana Figueres says coal industry must transform

Industry warned it must 'rapidly' transform itself, and diversify into renewable energy, to avoid catastrophic climate change

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 3:08am

Most of the world's coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming, the United Nations' climate chief has told the US$3 trillion global industry.

In a speech to industry executives, Christiana Figueres challenged the industry to urgently transform itself, diversify into renewable energy and "radically change ... rapidly and dramatically for everyone's sake".

"By now it should be abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can go ahead only if they are compatible with the 2 degrees Celsius limit," she said at the international coal and climate summit in Warsaw, being held at the same time as UN climate talks.

The goal of the UN talks is to keep mean temperature rises this century below 2 degrees.

Gas is the way to ensure we burn less coal over the next two decades

Figueres said the industry had "the opportunity to be part of the worldwide climate solution" by switching off old coal power plants, capturing and storing carbon from new plants and leaving most of the world's coal reserves in the ground. She also said coal power could help poorer countries' economic development and poverty reduction, but that the industry "must change".

"I urge every coal company to honestly assess the financial risks of business as usual; anticipate increasing regulation, growing finance restrictions and diminishing public acceptance," she said.

Figueres was later backed by the British energy minister, Greg Barker, who is in Warsaw for the UN negotiations. "Coal represents the biggest threat to climate stability in the medium term. If we can keep coal in the ground it could have a profound impact on the growth of the world economy. The question is how do we keep unabated coal in the ground," he said.

But Barker backed gas over renewables. "Gas is the way to ensure we burn less coal over the next two decades," he said.

At a later press conference, Figueres said the industry needed a "deep, deep transformation" and should reinvent itself as a developer of renewable energy.

"They really need to do a major, major rethink and a major shift in the deployment of their capital [towards renewable energy] ... there is no doubt they are the energies of the future," she said.

Her remarks took both the coal industry and environment groups by surprise. The industry had invited her to talk in expectation that she would legitimise their continuing growth if they adopted new technologies. The activists had been critical of her talking to the industry at all.

It is thought Figueres was stung by insistent youth groups at the UN conference who reportedly admonished her for being prepared to talk to the coal industry but not to them.

The industry declined to respond directly but argued that significant emissions reductions could be achieved by improving the efficiency of coal-fired plants using "high efficiency" coal.

This was rebutted by a group of 27 international scientists meeting in Warsaw who agreed with Figueres, saying that nearly 75 per cent of the world's coal reserves had to be left in the ground if global warming was to be limited to a rise of 2 degrees.

In a joint statement, the scientists - from the US, Germany, Japan, China, India, Brazil and South Africa - rejected claims that high-efficiency coal can be a low-emission technology.

Using International Energy Agency estimates of world coal reserves, the group said that burning just 26 per cent of the reserves would break the global "carbon budget", lifting temperatures above the 2 degrees threshold.

Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace's international climate director, welcomed the speech. "She gave the right warning to investors that any new investment into coal-fired power plants is a financial risk, as there will be increasing regulation, growing finance restrictions and diminishing public acceptance."

Coal use growing despite climate concerns

Despite a worsening reputation as a greenhouse gas, coal continues to gain ground as developing countries use cheap, abundant deposits of the fuel to power their growth.

  • Coal in 2011 accounted for 44 per cent of global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO
  • {-2}), the biggest greenhouse gas in terms of volume. This compares to 35 per cent from oil and 20 per cent for gas.
  • Coal's share represented a 4.9 per cent increase to 13.7 billion tonnes of CO
  • {-2} in 2011.
  • Coal's contribution to climate-altering emissions continues to grow: in 2001 oil had been the largest polluter with 42 per cent.
  • Coal is nearly twice as emissions-intensive as gas relative to the kilowatt of energy produced.
  • On current trends, emissions from coal will grow to 15.7 billion tonnes of CO
  • {-2} in 2035. The biggest growth is in developing countries, led by China and India, where there are large coal reserves with little geopolitical risk.
  • Coal provides 30 per cent of primary energy, 41 per cent of global electricity and is used to produce 68 per cent of the world's steel, according to the industry's body.
  • There are over 860 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide - enough to last 109 years at current production rates. The biggest reserves are in the United States, Russia, China, Australia and India.
  • Scientists have said about two-thirds of known fossil fuels must stay in the ground if the world is to meet the target of limiting average global warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

Agence France-Presse