The World Coal Association (WCA) is a 36-year-old organization that represents industry leaders, committed to building a sustainable future for global coal and plays an active role in achieving its worldwide economic and environmental aspirations for clean coal usage, technology and innovation. WCA members promote collaboration, demonstrating that the key to a clean coal industry lies in a balanced, agnostic global policy environment that is inclusive of all fuels and all technologies. According to the WCA there are five reasons why countries still choose coal:

  • reliability.
  • affordability.
  • flexibility.
  • can support renewables to provides countries with energy security.
  • drives economic growth

WCA reiterates that all fuels and all technologies are needed to meet the challenges we face and to provide for those countries looking to develop, and it poses the question why can’t clean coal technology be used as well? In this article, Global Road Technology evaluates whether replacing coal is as easy as policy makers and world leaders hope.

Can coal simply be washed out of the energy mix?

WCA unequivocally states that coal cannot simply be washed out of the energy mix, nor can it be easily or quickly replaced by renewables. Coal is the conduit to economic progress and modernization, and through the availability and implementation of a raft of clean coal technologies (CCT), including:

  • carbon capture and storage.
  • coal-to-hydrogen.
  • coal gasification.

Coal is becoming part of the climate change solution to help the planet deliver affordable, reliable and clean energy. However, for clean coal technologies to be deployed more widely across the world, greater investment is needed. 

What are the global numbers of people working in the coal and related industries?

Around 9 million people work in coal worldwide. 6.5 million people work in coal mining, processing, and delivery and roughly 2.5 million people work in coal power generation and associated networks. Many more millions are employed in related industries, such as steel, cement, and aluminium, and there is further indirect employment generated in the industries and businesses that support coal. Emerging economies continue to see coal as a good option for future development, but its contribution is not limited to developing nations, as advanced economies benefit significantly from the industry’s operations, both directly and indirectly.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

In Queensland, Australia, 20,000 people were employed by the coal industry creating A$20 billion of income (2018 figures). Coal exports raised A$1 billion in royalties, providing a significant source of necessary funding for public services. Whilst in Europe, despite the significant reduction in coal production in recent years, the coal market in Germany and Poland still supports over 160,000 jobs in the form of direct and indirect employment. Coal makes a significant contribution to our societies and economies. With clean coal technologies, we can continue to grow local economies and employment.

What is the role of clean coal technology?

A joint report between WCA and ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE) the findings showed that in the ASEA, for instance, increasing investment by 6.2% could incentivize all coal combustion capacity to be built using the most efficient Ultra-Super-Critical technology. The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the energy security and sustainable development opportunities that Clean Coal Technologies (CCT) promotes in the implementation of ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) Phase II: 2021 – 2025 in facilitating the transition towards sustainable and lower emission development. This technology would reduce CO2 emissions by 500 million tonnes cumulatively by 2040 which is approximately 25 million tonnes of CO2 per year compared to a ‘business’ as usual scenario. Over the next 30 years, this is an equivalent to removing 111 million cars from the road. Put differently, this is the carbon abatement potential of 9400 wind turbines. 

Based on the report and its analysis, the report recommends to:

  • Encourage the international community to recognize an inclusive ‘all fuels and all technologies’ of energy generation toward energy transition and energy resilience.
  • Encourage AMS to be committed in rapidly scaling up advanced High-efficiency, low emission (HELE) technologies and establish pathway towards carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS).
  • Call on international finance and investment community to ensure and diverse financial support for cleaner coal projects and CCUS deployment in the ASEAN Region.
  • Encourage stronger partnership and collaboration with Dialogue Partners, International Organizations, and relevant stakeholders through ASEAN Forum on Coal (AFOC) and ACE as the main focal energy bodies to advance ASEAN sustainability in coal utilization.

Why must the coal industry unite to share its vision of the industry’s future?

At Russian Energy Week, in Moscow WCA CEO Michelle Manook was a panelist on ‘The Future of Coal in a World Shaped by the Climate Agenda: The End, or a New Beginning?’. Her statements on the need for unity in the coal industry with a shared vision touched on the following aspects:

“Progressive coal and this modern coal industry will be one of collaboration and cooperation … It will recognize that decarbonization is something that society wants, and it will also look to those technologies to work it through.

“They [current and future WCA Members] are looking to all of the value chain to now emerge with a united voice, and a united vision for the coal industry, one that is based on fact and technology and one that also accepts will look different.”

Who bears the brunt of unbalanced energy transitions?

People still need power while going through the energy transitions and that warrants coexistence with CCTs that have become part of the debate. In essence implementation of transition technologies should take people with. The debate continues with some school of thoughts proposing that there is nothing out there to “transition” to that provides the low cost and reliability that you get from fossil fuels except nuclear energy. We can transition to new generation HELE coal plants and if you think CO2 is an issue, it’s not, you can install CCUS. Some ‘cheek in tongue’ sentiments also interrogate the debacle of the developed vs the underdeveloped world. The developed countries have slowly moved away from manufacturing to technology and renewables, but the developing and underdeveloped countries are far away from reaching that stage. A knee jerk approach towards out casting coal (one should talk of oil and gas in the same breath) for RnE is suicidal. Let RnE reach every house in the world first. Let’s not forget that we have not achieved Millennial Development Goals (MDG’s) and now happily moved towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). Shifting goals should not become a habit. 

In conclusion

Phasing in CCTs and CCUS has the potential to not only be an economic and environmentally acceptable route to a low carbon future but also to enable coal to form the basis of a future hydrogen economy. It is important for those calling for any phaseout of coal use to appreciate that coal is part of the climate change solution through the phase-in of clean coal technologies. To reach net-zero, they will need a diversity of fuels and clean technologies – without impeding economic and social progress. 

So, to go back to the initial question; Is replacing coal as easy as policy makers and world leader perceive? – No, it’s not easy. Coal is a critical energy source for billions of people and part of the climate change solution through the “phase-in” of clean coal technologies. Coal just can’t be turned off like a switch and the people element is just one other major factor we cannot ignore. What’s your take?

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