Monday, November 18, 2013

The Distraction of Coal at COP19

The Warsaw COP19 climate change negotiations experienced a bit of local competition that proved to be pretty interesting itself: the International Coal and Climate Summit, held at Poland’s Ministry of Economy.

Here’s the description:

International Coal & Climate Summit will bring together the leadership of the world’s largest coal producing companies, energy & heat producers, coal-consuming industry representatives, senior policy-makers, academics and NGO representatives to discuss the role of coal in the global economy, in the context of the climate change agenda. The industry’s most important event this year will be held at the Ministry of Economy of Poland during climate change negotiations.

The keynote address, delivered by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is notably stark and to the point:

Development banks have stopped funding unabated coal. Commercial financial institutions are analyzing the implications of unburnable carbon for their investment strategies. Pricing of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions is on the rise, evidenced by trading markets coming online around the globe. And, international policy is moving us toward a global low-emission economy.

Her prescription for the industry, also quite stark:

Close all existing subcritical plants; Implement safe CCUS [carbon capture use and storage] on all new plants, even the most efficient; and Leave most existing reserves in the ground.

But this is why coal industry figures are there. This is what they want to hear. Whatever their individual views, they take what Figueres has to say quite seriously – and she clearly takes their capacity for change and technology wherewithal equally seriously.

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 ten years at a point when no one knew how that would be done.

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.

This is one of the most striking speeches on energy industry challenges I’ve heard – and, correctly, it is guardedly but decidedly optimistic. Even if it’s not about nuclear energy, the whole thing is worth a read.

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The New York Times has good coverage of the speech. This bit stuck out in the coverage:

Environmentalists criticized the very existence of the coal summit. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American advocacy group, called the summit “a distraction.”

A distraction – or a key topic in the larger discussion? That’s clearly how Figueres views it. We should have more such distractions.

2 comments:

SteveK9 said...

I believe that CO2 capture is a ridiculous idea. With less effort and absolute assurance of success coal can be replaced by nuclear. Maybe retrofitting would make sense, but probably not.

Engineer-Poet said...

CO2 capture and storage makes sense in the context of atmospheric remediation, not fossil-fuel cleanup.  Perhaps some design of a thermal-spectrum reactor like a thorium or DMSR can be used as a drop-in replacement for coal-fired boilers, allowing those sub-critical plants to go on generating at low investment cost and without CO2.  On the other side, carbon from a variety of sources is routinely gathered and then allowed to return to the atmosphere.  If substantial amounts of that carbon can be locked up instead, we can drive atmospheric CO2 down instead of up.  The hard part is going to be integrating these sequestration steps into a changed economy, instead of layering them on as added-cost elements which are bound to be bypassed whenever people can get away with it.