Coal is a dead man walking, but it’s taking too long to die. As the dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal is one of the main reasons why the climate is in crisis. The CO2 it emits is a major cause of global heating, and the carbon particulates from the combustion of coal contribute to the eight million deaths globally each year from air pollution.
Growing universal awareness that the climate is in crisis has increased pressure on the coal industry, the banks which finance it and the insurance companies that insure it. All have begun reacting to that pressure, setting policies to limit their risk exposure. Coal is also under pressure economically, as natural gas and both wind and solar now beat coal on price.
The industry should be dead, but new plants continue to be planned, financed, and approved. Plants built today will speed emissions and pollutants for 30 or 40 years. Yet by that time the world must be close to net-zero emissions to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of a climate gone hostile.
The coal industry knows it is ailing, but it doesn’t yet accept that its decline is irreversible, that its case is terminal. The financial sector has set policies to curb it, but loopholes render them ineffective. Governments are unwilling or unable to disrupt an established industry that employs thousands. Despite the best efforts of climate activists such as Greta Thunberg, political will is sorely lacking. Even stern warnings from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, have had little effect.
Market forces are working, finance is starting to squeeze, and public disapprobation is tarnishing the industry’s image, yet none of these forces is acting quickly or forcefully enough. The climate crisis won’t wait. Coal needs a mercy killer, an executioner, a coup de grace. The world needs coal to die for humanity to live. Soon.
The next and last chance for a coal-free world in time to avoid an uninhabitable planet is at the upcoming COP27 this November at a location still to be decided. This UN Climate Summit, six years after the Paris Accord, is when member nations are required to commit to greater efforts to keep global warming to tolerable limits. With the reengagement of the United States under the new Biden administration, the sputtering hope that the nearly 200 nations of the world can agree not to commit collective suicide gets an infusion of new hope.
Will the leadership, the example, and the financial and political clout of the US be enough to overcome the inertia and sclerosis of that international body, the venality, local focus, and self-interest of politicians everywhere, and humanity’s innate propensity to discount possible future rewards in favor of either immediate gains or cost-avoidance now?
Frankly, the prospects of Biden and Kerry rallying the world’s leaders at COP26 to commit to ending coal within the timeframe needed to avoid calamity are quite slim. Coal will continue to die a slow death, just like the human race. Greta has good reason to be outraged, and you should be too.