More coal means more global poverty, say researchers

A new report by a consortium of leading development organizations forecasts that millions of people around the world could be pushed into poverty if just one third of the planned new coal-fired power plants globally are built.

Researchers from organizations such as the U.K.’s Overseas Development Institute and India’s Vasudha Foundation warn that following through on plans to build more coal power would push global temperature increases beyond 2 degrees Celsius, and thus plunging many millions into poverty as a result of climate change-driven effects on their regions.

Despite pressure building to phase out coal, the industry is not going lightly, claiming it remains the cheapest source of reliable energy and the shortest route to economic growth for the developing world.

However, numerous studies have extolled the virtues and economic sense of adopting renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind along the path to growth – and as prices for these technologies continue to fall it would be folly to continue down the coal path, these experts argue.

Small, off-grid and distributed renewable power enables countries and regions to leapfrog the expense of centralized power stations, and “is the cheapest and quickest way of reaching over two-thirds of those without electricity”, said the report.

"There are myths that we’re trying to pull up the ladder and deny developing countries the chance to develop the way we did," said Sarah Wykes, the lead analyst on climate change and energy issues for CAFOD, a Catholic international development charity.

"But you don’t need these kinds of dirty fuels anymore for economic development. There are much better clean alternatives," Wykes added in an interview with Reuters.

China and India – countries with ambitious solar PV goals and dynamic growth in 2016 – are among the leading culprits in terms of coal power growth. Around 60% of the 2,400 new coal plants under construction or planned are located in those two countries. Air pollution in places such as Delhi, Mumbai, Beijing and Shanghai is already a chronic problem, and as awareness of the health risks associated with smog and coal plants grows, so too will public pressure on the government to turn their backs on new fossil fuel additions, hope the report’s authors.

If one-third of the planned coal plants are built globally, temperature increases are likely to surpass the 2 degrees Celsius limit agreed in Paris last year, leading to greater instances of drought, famine and severe storms as sea level rise.

Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president, has said that “it would spell disaster for our planet” if Asia presses ahead with its planned coal plants.

Wykes stressed that coal power is ingrained in the developmental expertise of developing countries, arguing that more must be done to bring wider awareness and expertise of renewable energies.

“Development finance staff have expertise in fossil fuels and lack skills in renewables,” Wykes said. “There is a lack of internal incentives, human capacity and the right policy frameworks.”

Allied to this is the insidious impact of the coal industry’s mighty lobby groups, which are adept at warning of economic catastrophe if nations turn their back on coal.

However, renewable energy sources regularly offer not just more jobs than the coal industry, but better and healthier jobs too. If richer countries can continue to wean themselves off coal and other fossil fuels while maintaining economic growth, that could be a spur for developing nations to change, the report added.

The report comes at a time when CO2 in the atmosphere is expected to be above 400 parts per million (ppm) on average by the end of 2016, according to the UN, and is not expected to dip below that for a generation at least.