Piles of coal at a coal-fired power plant in India

Developing world doesn’t need coal to catch up, report says

Image credit: Reuters

A new report called ‘Beyond Coal: Scaling up clean energy to fight poverty’ has dismissed claims that the developing world needs coal to catch up with the West, as the cost of renewable energy installations has dropped to the level that makes the cleaner choice a no-brainer.

The paper has been published by global development and poverty organisations including the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the Catholic international development charity (CAFOD) and Christian Aid. It states that contrary to the widespread belief, building more coal-fired power plants in developing countries would actually cause more harm than good, as it could tip the global ecosystem into a full-blow climate chaos.

“There’s no question that rich economies must rapidly replace coal with low-carbon energy to avoid a climate crisis,” said Ilmi Granoff, co-author and a Research Associate with the Climate and Energy Programme at the ODI. “But now the coal industry continues to spread false claims that coal is critical to fighting extreme poverty and improving energy access in poorer countries. This paper, from organisations on the front line of the fight against poverty, shows that coal undermines both climate and development goals, while clean energy supports them.”

If just a third of the currently planned 2,400 coal-fired power plants were constructed, the report says, concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere would increase to the level that would warm up the world beyond the 2°C deemed safe by climatologists. Extreme weather events including floods, droughts and devastating storms would ensue, of which the developing countries would bear the brunt. As a result, the charities argue, people in the developing world would only end up worse off.

The report refers to countries such as India and China that have been building new coal-fired plants in the past decades to cover growing demand for electricity. Both of those countries, the report said, have witnessed a massive increase in health problems related to breathing polluted air.

From the job perspective, the researchers believe, renewables make more sense as they provide more high-skilled better-paid opportunities than coal plants.

Small-scale solar and wind power installations supplying clean renewable electricity to particular communities would be the best choice for most countries.

“India is rolling out 40GW of affordable solar from the roofs of ashrams to homes and businesses,” said Srinivas Krishnaswamy, CEO of Christian Aid partner the Vasudha Foundation.

The report’s authors cited multiple examples of developing countries that have already opted to follow the renewable path. Central American Nicaragua, for example, aims to get 95 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2017. Rwanda and Ethiopia in Africa are also heavily investing in renewables.

“The evidence is clear, ensuring everybody in the world has energy by 2030 requires a switch to investment in off-grid solutions, like solar home systems and mini-grids, as most people without modern electricity live in remote areas,” explained Sarah Wykes, Lead Analyst on Climate and Energy at CAFOD and co-author of the report.

“This clean, affordable, safe and reliable energy is critical for lifting people out of poverty – including women suffering from the impacts of cooking with polluting fuels daily – and for powering businesses, growth and employment.”

The report’s authors believe that many countries chose coal because their experts don’t properly understand renewables.

The coal industry says that modern coal-fired technology produces up to 40 per cent less emissions than traditional power plants. However, the charities are not impressed.

“There are myths that we’re trying to pull up the ladder and deny developing countries the chance to develop the way we did,” Wykes told Reuters. “But you don’t need these kinds of dirty fuels anymore for economic development. There are much better clean alternatives.”

The report recommends governments to stop subsidising coal use and construction of new coal-fired plants as soon as possible. Instead, the focus needs to shift to renewables. The global community should provide support that would enable the developing countries to deliver on commitments of the Paris climate change treaty.

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