What’s behind the push to eliminate coal? In addition to its significant contribution to climate-warming emissions, coal burning has long been a source of mercury and other contaminants in our environment. The mining process puts drinking water at risk, and the waste left from coal combustion is poorly regulated, often held in unlined ponds that contaminate groundwater. Coal ash contains mercury, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, cancer, and numerous other health problems. Living within a mile of a coal ash pond is associated with a 2000 times greater risk of cancer. In the US alone, the pollution from coal burning costs an estimated $100 billion in healthcare and causes thousands of premature deaths annually.
Modeling a Cleaner Way of Life
Forward-thinking nations are showing how a future without coal cannot only be cleaner, but also economically viable. Sweden’s official website proudly proclaims its status as “the first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act,” noting that in subsequent years, it “managed to grow its economy substantially while reducing carbon emissions and limiting pollution.” In 2015 Sweden announced its intention to break free from fossil fuels altogether by 2020.
A year ago, Scotland closed its last coal-fired power plant and hopes to rely on 100% renewable energy by 2020, as does Portugal. Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta and the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have also gone coal-free. Belgium closed its last coal-burning plant in 2016.
Bidding coal adieu is becoming a popular way for nations to show their commitment to climate action. At the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh last December, French President Francois Hollande announced France’s plan to retire its remaining coal plants by 2023, two years ahead of the UK and Austria, which made similar announcements. Canada and Finland plan coal phase-outs by 2030. Germany also has plans to significantly cut coal use, with a projected phase-out by 2050.
In the Netherlands, a low-lying nation particularly susceptible to the effects of climate driven sea-level rise, a close vote last year mandated the closure of remaining coal power plants in the country. Long a leader in wind energy, Denmark already gets more than 40% of its electricity from wind. Once almost completely dependent on fossil fuels for power, Denmark aims to get all its electricity from renewables by 2035.
A new report evaluating the health impacts of the 280 plants powered by coal in the European Union points out how coal-burning in neighboring countries drives up the incidence of health problems and their accompanying cost in countries across the EU. The report indicates that closing these plants would save over €62 billion annually in health care expenses. The plants most harmful to human health, the report found, were in Poland, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, and the UK.
A Fossil-Free Future?
After a campaign spearheaded by doctors, environmentalists, and foundations, the Canadian province of Ontario stopped using coal in 2014 and saw its greenhouse gas emissions drop by 17%, “the single largest GHG reduction measure in North America.” The combined effort of grassroots organizing and a progressive government, the end of coal in Ontario helped challenge the province’s image as one of the “biggest climate laggards.”
An inspiring example of the possibility for a completely fossil-free future is Costa Rica, where the national grid ran entirely on renewables for much of 2016. Granted, in small countries with far less energy-intensive industry than nations like the US or China, such feats are more readily achievable. Nonetheless, they demonstrate how wise investment in renewables can meet a country’s power needs without dangerous contributions of CO2 to the atmosphere.
One issue to watch is how these countries treat their coal holdings once they quit coal. Experts warn that we must “keep it in the ground” to avert climate disaster, a proposition that can be a hard sell to the owners of the mines, who view the coal as “stranded assets.” Sweden drew sharp criticism from environmentalists last year for selling state-owned coal mines to a Czech power company, which Bill McKibben called “an act of climate sabotage.” Critics point out that not burning coal yourself is beside the point if you simply let someone else do it instead.
Moving Beyond Coal
Here in the United States, it once looked as though coal’s days were numbered. In 2015 the Clean Power Plan finally required coal-burning power plants to cut emissions rather than permitting the unfettered pollution coal plants have always enjoyed.
The Sierra Club’s unprecedented Beyond Coal campaign has posed legal challenges to existing and proposed coal plants, and has rallied grassroots support to oppose coal burning that would affect local air quality and public health. To date, the campaign has seen 246 coal-fired plants shut down. In part because power from renewables is now cost competitive with other sources of energy, new investment in coal has declined markedly. Additionally, as more analysts have begun to recognize the externalized costs of fossil fuels to human health and the environment, investment in renewables seems the far more cost-effective choice in the long-term.
2015 closed with some really positive movement on climate and many of us breathed a sigh of relief that at last world leaders were taking the threat of climate change more seriously. Although the US has since changed its position on coal, the rest of the world continues its move towards a carbon-free future. Even if the new administration succeeds in dismantling the Clean Power Plan, a resurgence of coal is unlikely. The economics of renewables, combined with competition from natural gas and fewer countries seeking to import US coal, will continue to challenge the coal industry.
Though some have claimed that curbing emissions will “cripple” national economies, a new report from the International Energy Agency confirms that shifts to clean energy do not necessarily hinder economic growth. Despite stalled CO2 emissions over the past few years, global GDP grew by over 3% in both 2014 and 2015. For this and other reasons, many regard the shift to renewables as inevitable, arguing that out-dated, polluting sources of energy like coal have no place in the era of climate change. The question remains whether we will move beyond these dirty sources of energy in time to avert catastrophic changes to our climate.
While we wait for (and pressure) more governments to make badly needed changes to power generation, we can all play a part in the shift to cleaner energy. Whether it’s installing our own solar panels, subscribing to a community solar garden, or buying wind energy from our power company, our dollars invested in clean technology will continue the important transformation of the ways we power our lives.
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