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Portugal says farewell to coal as it closes last remaining plant

Back in 2017, Portugal pledged to give up on coal, the most polluting energy source of all fossil fuels, by 2030. With nine years to go, the government just shut down the last remaining coal plant (Pego) which had been the country’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Now, it’s time to expand renewable energy, campaigners argue. 

Image credit: Flickr / Rich.

Portugal is now the fourth country in the European Union to stop using coal for power generation — the three others being Belgium, Austria, and Sweden. This year, the EU adopted ambitious climate targets to tackle climate change, hoping to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 — and leaving coal is essential to deliver on that pledge. 

The last coal plant to close in Portugal, Pego, is located 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon. Now, the country doesn’t have any coal mines left, and it also doesn’t have any oil or gas resources (so they’re all imported). Seeking to replace them, the government has been investing heavily in renewables in recent decades, which now account for about 70% of its energy matrix, but there’s still a way to go.

While environmentalists welcomed the news, Portugal is now considering the continued use of Pego with other types of energy, including biomass (burning wood pellets), and many see this as counterproductive. Francisco Ferreira, head of the Portuguese environmental association ZERO, said in a statement Portugal shouldn’t repurpose Pego and instead expand renewables even further. 

“Portugal is the perfect example of how once a country commits to quitting coal, the pace of the phase out inevitably accelerates. The benefits of transitioning to renewables are so great, once started, it only makes sense to get out of coal as fast as possible,” said Kathrin Gutmann, Europe Beyond Coal campaign director, in a statement. 

Considering that the Portuguese government is now being sued by the European Commission (EC) for poor air quality, moving away from coal is a step in the right direction. Portugal has very high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NOX) in the atmosphere and the EC is questioning the government for “continually and persistently” exceeding the NOX limit in several cities.

Phasing out coal 

A group of 28 countries recently joined forces at the COP26 climate summit a global alliance to phase out coal, which has already been agreed by a total of 48 governments. The Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) includes members such as Poland, one of the main consumers of coal in Europe, as well as Singapore, Chile, Estonia, South Korea, and Canada.  

China hasn’t signed the pledge yet, which is very significant as China is the world’s largest coal consumer. Coal accounted for 56% of energy consumption in China last year and the government is currently building new coal plants. Still, there have been some positive signs, as China agreed to stop funding new coal plants in foreign countries. 

Coal currently accounts for over one-third of global electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Still, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Since 2015, a total of 1,175GW of planned coal-fired power projects were canceled after pressure from civil society, market trends, and government policies. However, if we want to truly give up on fossil fuel energy, there’s much more we still need to do.

The Philippines declares ‘no new coal plants’ but campaigners say it’s not enough

Following a reassessment of the country’s energy system, the Philippines declared a moratorium on new coal-fired plants. The move halts applications for new plants but doesn’t extend to previously approved projects already in the pipeline, a decision questioned by environmental organizations.

A Greenpeace protest against coal in the Philippines. Credit Greenpeace

“While we have initially embraced a technology-neutral policy, our periodic assessment of our country’s energy requirements is paving the way for innovative adaptations in our policy direction,” said Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi in a statement, previously questioned for not pursuing carbon-free power generation.

The government hasn’t yet identified the power plants that would be affected by the moratorium. But a network of anti-coal groups said in a statement that the ban would mean the cancellation of over 13GW of new coal plants. The move will help the government have a “more flexible” power supply mix, said Cusi.

As in other countries, coal is seen as a baseload energy resource in the Philippines, sufficiently cost-effective to provide a constant stream of power. It accounts for 44.5% of the total energy mix, with 28 coal-fired power plants operating throughout the country. This has long been questioned by environmental organizations.

The reliance on coal for electricity generation has led to regular power outages and increasing disruptions in the energy sector. The pandemic exacerbated the issue. Climate predictions of more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as typhoons also point to the need for a more flexible energy system.

“The decision is an admission of what we have long been saying about coal: that it is environmentally destructive, incompatible with climate goals, and unable to power our economy sustainably and reliably,” said in a statement Gerry Arances, executive director of the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED).

Before the new plan, the government had approved new 22 coal plants, which would increase coal’s share in the energy matrix to 53%. This goes against the Philippines’ decarbonization commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Still, these new plants will move forward as the ban only applies to proposed projects that haven’t yet been assessed and approved by the government. Coal projects that have been granted environmental compliance certificates and other permits from local governments in the areas where they’re based are also not included in the ban.

“The significance of the announcement will be ultimately judged by what the moratorium actually covers,” Lidy Nacpil from the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), said in a statement. “The energy department must enforce a moratorium on all coal power developments, including all coal power projects in the pipeline.”

Looking ahead, the government hopes to grow renewables in the energy mix and reduce the high cost of electricity, taking advantage of the dropping costs of clean energy. They also want to encourage foreign investments in large scale geothermal projects, announcing more flexible rules on foreign ownership limits.

Power companies are hindering the transition to renewable energy

Power utilities are lagging behind, and even hindering, the global transition to renewable energy, according to the University of Oxford. The findings show that only 10% of the companies are prioritizing clean power investment over the expansion of fossil fuel energy.

Credit Beyond Coal. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The study looked at over 3,000 electric companies identified as regulated utilities (including those owned by national or local governments), investor-owned, and cooperative utilities, existing at some point between 2001 and 2018, with gas- and/or coal-based generation assets in their portfolio.

Galina Alova, who led the study, retrieved historical releases of a global asset-level dataset, which she argued offers a unique opportunity to capture changes of plant ownership over time. Alova used a bottom-up approach, looking at portfolio developments of the utilities that directly own the power-generation assets.

“If you look at all utilities, and what’s the dominant behavior, it is that they’re not doing much in fossil fuels and renewables,” Alova told the BBC.

“So they might be doing something with other fuels like hydropower or nuclear, but they’re not transitioning to renewables nor growing the fossil fuel capacity.”

Limits to renewables

Renewable energy has gained a big share of the market worldwide this year. For example, 40% of the electricity in the UK came from solar and wind last year. But many clean energy installations were built by independent producers. Large scale utility companies have so far been much slower to become greener.

The study found that only one in ten companies expanded their renewable-based power generation more quickly than their gas or coal-fired capacity. Of this small proportion that spent more on renewables, many continued to invest in fossil fuels, although at a lower rate.

Most of the companies prioritizing renewable energy were clustered in Europe. Many of the industry’s biggest players are investing in low-carbon energy and green technologies to replace their aging fossil fuel power plants. Meanwhile, those favoring growth in gas-fired plants were clustered in the US and Russia.

This might in part be attributed to relatively higher carbon prices in Europe and by policies in support of renewable energy in some European countries, improving the cost competitiveness of low-carbon technologies, Alova argued.

Only 2% of the companies studied were actively growing more pollutant coal-fired power capacity ahead of renewables or gas, the study showed. This cluster is dominated by Chinese utilities, which alone contributed more than 60% of coal-focused companies, followed by India and Vietnam.

“This study shows that overall the sector is making the transition to clean energy slowly or not at all,” Alova told The Guardian. “Utilities’ continued investment in fossil fuels leaves them at risk of stranded assets, where power plants will need to be retired early, and undermines global efforts to tackle climate change.”

Alova found that utilities dominate global fossil-fuel-based electricity generation, holding over 70% of operating coal and gas capacity in 2018. Most of these assets are far from their retirement age, with a third being added in the last ten years. Unless closed early, thus incurring financial losses, these power plants are here to stay for decades.

Alova said inertia within the electricity industry is a leading cause of the slow transition to renewable energy. Their investment is usually more complex than what is reported in the news, she said, adding renewables and natural gas usually “go hand in hand”. That parallel investment in gas is what dilutes the shift to renewables, Alova concluded.

The study was published in Nature Energy.

Europe increasingly focuses on coal-free future

Clean energy sources such as bioenergy, wind, solar, and hydro have generated 40% of the electricity in Europe in the first half of the year, the first time such a figure is reached. Renewables appear to overtake fossil fuels, which generated 34% of the electricity in the European bloc.

The independent think-tank Ember published its half-yearly report, which showed Europe’s long goodbye to coal is finally speeding up. The transition is being helped by the rise of wind and solar power, as well as the energy policy that has priced the fossil fuels out of many European markets.

“This marks a symbolic moment in the transition of Europe’s electricity sector. Renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels, driven by wind and solar replacing coal. That’s fast progress from just nine years ago when fossil fuels generated twice as much as renewables,” Dave Jones, an electricity analyst at Ember, said in a press release.

Green energy rose by 11% while fossil fuels fell by 18% in the first six months of the year in Europe, according to the findings, which argued the larger share of renewables was driven by new wind and solar installations and favorable weather conditions across the continent.

This also becomes evident when looking at each power source. Wind was +11%, solar +16%, hydro +12%, and bioenergy only +1%. Meanwhile, coal was -32% and natural gas was -6%. Every EU country that still uses coal saw a fall in coal generation. Germany led in absolute terms with a 39% drop, followed by Poland (12%) and Czech Republic (20%). These are encouraging figures for Europe’s climate future.

The findings by Ember were reinforced by Global Energy Monitor researchers, who predicted a record rate of closures globally this year. The pace of coal plant closures in Spain, with 69% of the entire fleet to be shuttered between 2020 and 2021, has no precedent, Global Energy Monitor Programme Director Christine Shearer told Reuters. Adding renewable energy doesn’t do anything unless fossil plants are shut down, but many European countries have increased their efforts on coal. Austria, closed its last coal plant having closed in April, Belgium was the first EU country to become coal-free, Denmark is set to phase out coal in 2030, France committed to close its last plant by 2022, and Greece will do the same by 2028.

Still, there are several European countries with no clear closure plan for their plants, mainly located in central and Eastern Europe. This includes Turkey, which wants to increase coal capacity to 30GW by 2023, Slovenia, which added six new plants in 2016, Romania and Poland, both with aging coal power plants. Overall though, the share of energy from renewable sources in gross final consumption of energy was 18% in 2018, up from 8.5% in 2008.

Speaking in a recent online conference, former US Vice President Al Gore said to be encouraged by the fact that many economic stimulus plans across the globe amid the pandemic are focused on carbon reduction. This shows the world has crossed a threshold “beyond which it is ever clearer that sustainable technologies are cheaper and better,” he argued. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked countries to stop financing the coal industry in order to have a more sustainable future. He questioned those that have spent more money supporting fossil fuels than renewables amid the pandemic.

A study this year by the financial think tank Carbon Tracker showed coal developers could end up losing up to $600 billion as renewable energy is now cheaper than coal energy in many countries. More than 60% of the coal power plants operating across the globe generate electricity at higher costs than it could be produced by using renewables.

Sweden waves goodbye to its last coal plant — two years in advanced

Slowly but surely, European countries are starting to renouncing coal, one of the most polluting energy sources available.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Sweden just became the third European country to leave coal behind, following Belgium and Austria. The country decided to shut down its last remaining coal plant two years before the scheduled closure, signaling a strong intent to shift to renewable energy.

The coal plant is located in eastern Stockholm and owned by Stockholm Exergi, a company part-owned by the City of Stockholm. The decision was described by the company as a “milestone” and will help lower the greenhouse gas emissions of the country.

“This plant has provided the Stockholmers with heat and electricity for a long time — today we know that we must stop using all fossil fuels, therefore the coal needs to be phased out and we did so several years before the original plan,” Anders Egelrud, chief executive of Stockholm Exergi, said in a statement.

The company first aimed to close the plant in 2022, gradually reducing its output. But the deadline was met sooner, mainly thanks to a lower electricity demand due to a mild winter in Sweden — instead of waiting for another two years, better close it now and save the emissions.

Thanks to the move, Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, is a step closer to having its district heating produced only by renewable or recycled energy by 2030. Many European cities use district heating instead of localized boilers, as it increases efficiency and reduces pollution.

“Since Stockholm was almost totally fossil-dependent 30-40 years ago, we have made enormous changes and now we are taking the step away from carbon dependence and continuing the journey towards an energy system entirely based on renewable and recycled energy,” Egelrud added.

Sweden’s decision advances Europe’s movement away from coal. Belgium became the first EU country to phase out coal for heating and power in 2016. Austria followed this year, closing its last coal-fired plant – which powered a district heating network in the municipality of Mellach.

Seven more countries are expected to end coal by 2025: France (2022), Slovakia (2023), Portugal (2023), the UK (2024), Ireland (2025) and Italy (2025), according to Europe Beyond Coal. They are expected to be followed by Greece (2028), the Netherlands (2029), Finland (2029), Hungary (2030), and Denmark (2030).

There are ongoing discussions in the Czech Republic, Spain and North Macedonia about when to exit coal-fired electricity. Germany has said it will put its last coal plant offline by 2038, a commitment that still has to be firmed up in the country’s coal exit law.

“Against the backdrop of the serious health challenges we are currently facing, leaving coal behind in exchange for renewables is the right decision and will repay us in kind with improved health, climate protection and more resilient economies,” Kathrin Gutmann, campaign director for Europe Beyond Coal, told PV Magazine.

Leaving fossil fuels behind isn’t good just for the planet, it’s also an economically smart move, as the costs of renewables are dropping across the globe. A study by Carbon Tracker showed coal developers could end up losing up to $600 billion as renewable energy is now cheaper than coal energy in many countries.

Decommissioning coal-fired plants saved lives and improved crop yields in the US

A new study on the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the continental United States gauges the health and agricultural benefits it has generated for local communities.

Image credits Johannes Plenio.

Coal-fired power plants are, unsurprisingly, quite dirty. Coal burning is particularly problematic as it generates particulate matter and ozone (which together form smog) in the lower atmosphere. These compounds can affect the health of humans, wildlife, and plant life, and impact regional climate patterns by blocking incoming sunlight.

Jennifer Burney, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, looked into the benefits associated with the decommissioning of such plants. Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates, such decommissions saved over 26,000 lives and in their immediate vicinities in the continental US and helped improve local crop yields.

Coal — still dirty

“We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences,” Burney said.

“The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes — like an electric power unit being shut down — to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts.”

The transition from coal towards natural gas has definitely helped reduce CO2 emissions overall, Burney explains, and has helped lower local pollution levels in hundreds of areas. In order to quantify these changes, she combined data on electricity generation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ground-level and satellite pollution measurements from the EPA and NASA to see how coal-fired plant decommissioning affected local chemistry. She also factored in county-level mortality rates and crop yields from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the same areas.

Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates that the loss of 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat were avoided in the immediate vicinities of these decommissioned plants as a result of lower pollution levels. From this figure, she calculated that coal plants still left in operation in the US over the same timeframe contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of the same crops (roughly half of a typical year’s worth of harvest in the US).

All this being said, however, gas-fired plants aren’t completely benign, Burney adds. Even new natural gas units are associated with increased levels of local pollution, but of a different make-up than that released by coal-fired plants.

“Policymakers often think about greenhouse gas emissions as a separate problem from air pollution, but the same processes that cause climate change also produce these aerosols, ozone, and other compounds that cause important damages,” Burney concludes.

“This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production. If we understand the real costs of things like coal better, and who is bearing those costs, it could potentially lead to more effective mitigation and formation of new coalitions of beneficiaries across sectors.”

The paper “The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

‘Coal knew’ — investigation shows that the coal industry knew about climate change since 1966

A 2015 exposé by journalists at InsideClimate News, the LA Times, and Columbia University revealed that Exxon Mobil scientists performed experiments and conducted models in the 1970s that showed greenhouse emissions would trigger climate change. Despite their memos, Exxon’s leadership minimized the findings and would later invest hundreds of millions in front groups that denied the link between CO2 emissions and the climate emergency.

Now, a new investigation by the Huffington Post shows that the other side of the fossil fuel industry, namely coal, also had early insight into the association between the product of their business and global warming.

Documents obtained by the Post’s Élan Young showed that prominent coal industry members knew about the climate-altering effects of massive amounts of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere from as early as 1966. Like Exxon, coal companies not only hid this information but actively fought to manipulate the public opinion into thinking otherwise. In some cases, the lobby and coal-sponsored front groups would employ rhetoric that claimed CO2 emitted by coal-related activities was actually beneficial to the environment — believe it or not.

An article in the 1966 issue of the Mining Congress Journal noted that rising greenhouse gases emitted by coal activities could lead to changes in the climates of the earth. Credit: Chris Cherry.

Young draws attention to a 1966 article in the Mining Congress Journal, a coal industry publication, authored by James R. Garvey, who at the time was the president of Bituminous Coal Research Inc., a now-defunct coal research organization.

“There is evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is increasing rapidly as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels,” wrote Garvey. “If the future rate of increase continues as it is at the present, it has been predicted that, because the CO2 envelope reduces radiation, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere will increase and that vast changes in the climates of the earth will result.” 

“Such changes in temperature will cause melting of the polar icecaps, which, in turn, would result in the inundation of many coastal cities, including New York and London,” he continued.

In other words, this is a fairly accurate description of modern climate science findings, which draw a strong link between man-made greenhouse emissions and temperature rise.

In the same journal, James R. Jones, a Peabody Coal engineer, notes that the coal industry was merely “buying time”.

“We are in favor of cleaning up our air,” he wrote. “Everyone can point to examples in his own community where something should be done. Our aim is to have control that does not precede the technical knowledge for compliance.”

Just like Exxon scientists decades go, these 1960s coal industry representatives were straightforward about the reality and perils of climate change. The stakes weren’t so high for these company’s shareholders at the time and once it became apparent that regulations meant to dent emissions — and by extension, their business — the coal industry engaged in intentional lobbying and campaigning meant to monkey-wrench climate action.

Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the United States, has funded dozens of front groups that misrepresent climate science in order to polarize the public and delay climate action. They even went as far as spreading lies that borderon insanity.

“While the benefits of carbon dioxide are proven, the alleged risks of climate change are contrary to observed data, are based on admitted speculation, and lack adequate scientific basis,” the company wrote in a letter in 2015 to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Following Exxon Mobil’s internal memo leak, showing that the oil giant had information that its activities were contributing to climate change for decades, twenty state attorneys general filed 14 legal challenges against Exxon.

The first lawsuit, filed by the New York state attorney general’s office, went to trial on October 22. ExxonMobil is accused of defrauding shareholders and the public because of misrepresenting how carbon regulation would affect the company’s financial outlook in the future. The fraud cost investors as much US$1.6 billion, the attorney general’s office alleges.

In its defense, Exxon says the lawsuit is politically motivated and driven by anti-fossil fuel activists. The company says it was honest with shareholders about how it calculated carbon costs, dismissing any wrongdoing.

“The New York Attorney General’s allegations are false,” Steven Soper of Exxon’s Corporate Media Relations said to PBS. “We tell investors through regular disclosures how the company accounts for risks associated with climate change. We are confident in the facts and look forward to seeing our company exonerated in court.”

Whether or not representatives of the coal industry, such as Peabody, might face similar consequences remains to be seen, although the parallels are striking. And, like Exxon, the coal industry knew that its product would cause climate change and has tried its best to hide this fact.

In any event, a major fraud investigation against coal representatives could be like a final nail in the industry’s coffin. For years, coal has been tanking despite the Presidential Administration’s promises of revival. In 2016, Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy. Alpha Natural Resources, the second biggest coal company in the US, filed for bankruptcy along with other smaller firms in 2015.

Despite Trump’s promises, coal power is fading away in the US

President Donald Trump’s promised to boost the coal sector, but there is little economic sense to that: coal plants in the United States are shutting down and laying off workers as they can’t match the lower costs from natural gas and renewable energy.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The Navajo Generating Station and the Bruce Manfield power station are the latest in a long list of coal plants closing down this year. These two plants alone amount represent the entire emissions reductions from coal plants shut-downs in 2015 — a record year when 15GW of plants closed their doors in the US.

The two plants were important contributors to US greenhouse gas emissions. The Navajo station, located in Arizona, found no buyers after a two-year search, and was forced to shut down; the plant released 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which represents more than three million cars. Meanwhile, the Bruce Manfield station was the largest one in Pennsylvania and had operated for 40 years.

“You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

The coal industry in the US has been affected by a lower electricity demand, a preference by customers for low-carbon energy and more competition from other sources of energy such solar and wind. The use of coal has been declining since 2000, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Power companies will finish this year having retired or converted to gas over 10.6 MW of coal plants, according to EIA. Coal will only provide 25% of the US energy mix by the end of the year, while natural gas is on the rise and will represent 40% of the energy mix, expected to keep on growing.

Trump has placed a lot of effort to avoid this trend. He replaced the Clean Power Plan with the new Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which gives states more flexibility to keep coal plants open. But this hasn’t changed things much, as economics is favoring other sources of energy.

The cost of coal power is between $60 and $143 per megawatt-hour, according to an analysis by the financial advisory firm Lazard. Meanwhile, natural gas is much cheaper thanks to new technologies, now at $41 to $74 per megawatt-hour. Wind is the cheapest, at $29 to $56.

Among all states, Wyoming has been the most affected one as the country’s main coal producer. Demand is under decline and two coal mining companies, Cloud Peak and Blackjewel, have already filed for bankruptcy protection, each one laying off over 600 workers.

The climate factor

In the past decade, coal has been the energy to grow the most across the globe. Between 2001 and 2010, coal consumption rose 45%. This has also meant the highest increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in human history.

Global warming is among coal’s most significant impacts. Chemically speaking, coal is formed mainly by carbon. When burned, it reacts with oxygen and produced carbon dioxide. CO2 represents 76% of the global human-caused emissions.

Despite its now lower role in the US, coal is still the most significant source for electricity in the plant. Most of the coal electricity generation today happens in Asia, where several plants have opened up in the last decade.

The temperature on the planet has increased about one Celsius degree since the pre-industrial era. Coal is responsible for 0.3 Celsius degrees of that increase, according to the International Energy Agency (EIA).

Dumping coal-fired in favor of gas-fired plants would save the U.S. a lot of water — switching to renewables, a whole lot more

Less coal use translates to dramatic reductions in water usage, reports a team from Duke University.

Image via Pixabay.

The gradual transition from coal to natural gas and renewable energy in the U.S. is dramatically reducing the use of water in the energy industry. Furthermore, these overall savings in both water consumption and water withdrawal have been seen during a period where fracking and shale gas production have intensified their use of water.

Water, less

“While most attention has been focused on the climate and air quality benefits of switching from coal, this new study shows that the transition to natural gas — and even more so, to renewable energy sources — has resulted in saving billions of gallons of water,” said Avner Vengosh, Professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The team estimates that for every megawatt of electricity produced from natural gas instead of coal, the energy industry withdraws 10,500 fewer gallons of water from the environment (rivers and groundwater). That is equivalent to a 100-day water supply for a typical American household, according to the team. At the same time, water consumption (which is water used by a power plant but not returned to the environment) drops by 260 gallons per megawatt.

If these figures remain steady, and in the context of coal being slowly phased-out by fuels such as shale gas over the next decade, the team estimates that the energy industry will save up to 483 billion cubic meters of water per year by 2030. If all of today’s coal-fired plants switch to natural gas, yearly savings will reach 12,250 billion gallons. That’s over two-and-a-half times the quantity of water that the United States industry uses annually.

So whence doth the savings come? Coal mining and fracking use roughly the same quantities of water, the team explains, but natural gas power plants use much less of it than coal plants. The difference mostly comes from their cooling systems. Since around 40% of all water use in the U.S. today goes to cooling thermoelectric plants, individual reductions stack up to huge overall savings, Vengosh explains.

“The amount of water used for cooling thermoelectric plants eclipses all its other uses in the electricity sector, including for coal mining, coal washing, ore and gas transportation, drilling and fracking,” he said.

However, compared to gas and coal, solar and wind use virtually no water. The study showed that the water intensity (i.e. overall water use throughout their lifecycle) of these renewable sources is only 1% to 2% of that of coal or gas (as measured by water use per kilowatt of generated energy). In other words, a substantial shift to solar and wind would eliminate “much” of the water withdrawal and consumption for energy generation in the U.S.

Natural gas overtook coal as the primary fossil fuel for electricity generation in the United States in 2015, mainly due to the rise of unconventional shale gas exploration (fracking). It made up 35.1% of U.S. electricity in 2018, while wind and solar accounted for 6.5% and 2.3%, respectively. Coal-fired plants generated 27.4% of U.S. electricity in 2018.

The paper “Quantification of the water-use reduction associated with the transition from coal to natural gas in the U.S. electricity sector” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Credit: Pixabay.

The world decreased coal energy usage for the first time since the Industrial Revolution

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

According to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), investors have dramatically withdrawn their investments in coal. In the last three years, investments in new coal-fired power plants have dropped by 75%. Also, for the first time since the industrial revolution, there has been a reduction in coal capacity across the globe. Until recently, humans had been using more and more coal. Now we’ve finally starting to back away — another sign that coal’s best days are well behind it.

Another nail in the coffin

The IEA report World Energy Investment 2019 shows that a total of 236 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired plants are currently under construction worldwide. That’s still quite a lot — the equivalent of 740 million solar panels. However, investors’ confidence has dwindled. In 2015, the Final Investment Decisions (FIDs) fund for coal plants signed off 88 GW for construction but pledged only 22 GW in 2018.

Most of the new coal capacity is planned for India and China. Meanwhile, the EU and US have dramatically cut back on this fossil fuel, reducing overall use by 25% and 40%, respectively, over the last decade. And more and more plants will have to be closed. For instance, to meets its Paris Agreement carbon emissions target, the EU will have to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2030.

Across the world, coal-fired plants are responsible for around 38% of global electricity demand. But despite the huge number of planned power plants for the future, the rate at which old coal plants are being decommissioned is now higher than the rate of new plants coming online. The IEA says that a staggering 30 GW of coal-based generators were retired in 2018.

In the past couple of years, banks, hedge funds, cities, universities, religious entities and even the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune have withdrawn trillions of dollars from coal investments. If this trend continues, it will only be a matter of time until FIDs tumble to a big, fat zero. And when this happens, coal will officially become history.

The findings suggest that more and more investors want to pivot to more sustainable forms of energy. However, the report also found that although new energy infrastructure is needed to meet the growing and robust energy demands, there doesn’t seem to be enough capital flowing towards energy efficiency and cleaner supply sources. In other words, investors are being careful, looking at both sides of the street. But they certainly can’t stall forever — sooner or later, capital investors will have to place their bets, and the odds are stacked against coal and fossil fuels

“Energy investments now face unprecedented uncertainties, with shifts in markets, policies and technologies,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “But the bottom line is that the world is not investing enough in traditional elements of supply to maintain today’s consumption patterns, nor is it investing enough in cleaner energy technologies to change course. Whichever way you look, we are storing up risks for the future.”

“Current investment trends show the need for bolder decisions required to make the energy system more sustainable,” Dr. Birol said. “Government leadership is critical to reduce risks for investors in the emerging sectors that urgently need more capital to get the world on the right track.”



The UK had a coal-free week — the first time since 1882

The UK’s powerplants haven’t burned any coal for the last five days, the longest streak since the Industrial Revolution.


Image credits Rahel Jalal.

Since May 1st, 1 pm, power plants in the UK haven’t burned a single lump of coal. This is the country’s first coal-free week since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in 1882, according to the BBC. Wind, gas, and nuclear power have covered the demand.

Cut the coal

“As more and more renewables come onto our energy system, coal-free runs like this are going to be a regular occurrence,” says Fintan Slye, Director of UK System Operator at National Grid.

“We believe that by 2025 we will be able to fully operate Great Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon.”

Another factor that helped this coal-free stretch was timing: grids are more likely to reach carbon-neutrality in spring (or autumn) when winds are high and days are long enough for solar panels to have a sizeable output. At the same time, domestic demand for energy is still relatively low, as customers don’t need to cool, heat, or light their homes that much.

The country has previously managed to go coal-free — both last year and earlier this year — but never for so long. Coal doesn’t have a very large presence in the UK’s energy grid to begin with — under 10% of the country’s energy is currently derived from coal-fired plants. The country is a global leader in offshore wind energy, and can also draw on nuclear power as a green option. However, the UK is quite fond of gas-fired plants and, while definitely cleaner than coal, gas-fired plants still generate emissions (both during gas extraction and burning), so this coal-free period wasn’t also emissions-free.

Still, this was definitely a step in the right direction. There’s been a worldwide move away from coal and towards renewables for the last few years, although it seems to have stalled somewhat last year as several countries added more coal to their grids. Coal currently ranks second to oil as a main source of energy worldwide. Coal is one of the largest single sources of carbon emissions in the world and a key driver of climate change.

Credit: Pixabay.

For the first time, renewable energy generated more electricity than coal in the United States

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

In April, green energy provided more electricity than coal-fired power plants in the United States. Although coal will likely still dominate over renewable energy throughout the rest of the year, this situation was unthinkable only five years ago. The trend seems clear: renewable energy is growing faster than forecasted and is bound to overtake coal for good, just like natural gas did earlier.

Many US politicians are betting on the dying industry by dropping federal subsidies for renewable energy and enacting fossil fuel-favorable policies such as Trump’s 2018 “affordable clean energy” rule, which seeks to transfer pollution-control laws to the states. Coal has been free falling in the country for more than a decade — and not even President Trump’s coal-friendly policies seem to be helping. More coal-fired power plants have been shut down in the Trump administration’s first two years than were decommissioned in the entirety of Barack Obama’s first term in office (23,400 MW in 2017-2018 vs 14,900 MW in 2009-2012), according to a collation of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The coal industry is in a long-term secular decline driven by a combination of cheap natural gas and expanding renewable energy. In 2015, the energy produced from natural gas exceeded that from coal for the first time and has stayed on top ever since — natural gas now produces 35% of the country’s electricity, compared to coal’s share of 27%.

Recently, another nail was beaten in coal’s coffin after an analysis performed by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a non-profit that supports the transition to clean energy, broke the news that in April renewable energy surpassed coal for the first time.

This trend will likely continue through May but will reverse in the coming summer months as air conditioners switch on. Spring is usually the best month for renewable energy due to low demand for energy from furnaces and air conditioners. In fact, many coal-fired plants shut down this time of the year for scheduled maintenance and upgrades to prepare them for the busier summer and winter months.

That being said, the trend is clear: coal will continue to generate less and less electricity while renewable energy will grow until surpassing the former permanently. Coal’s share of total power generation tumbled from 45% in 2010 to 28% in 2018 — and it’s expected to dip to just 24% in 2020. Meanwhile, wind and solar are growing fast, driven by technological advances such as cheap, high-density lithiom-ion batteries that can store the intermittent energy and release it when there is demand. This trend applies to the entire world, not just the United States. A recent report issued by the  International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) last month found that two-thirds of new energy installed in 2019 was renewable energy. 

In Texas, green energy seems to have already permanently overtaken coal energy. According to the IEEFA, which crunched data from the Federal Energy Information Administration, wind and solar energy in Texas topped the production of coal for the entire first quarter of 2019. Other states such as Hawaii, California, and New Mexico are very close to this tipping point.

“Coal’s proponents may dismiss these monthly and quarterly ups and downs in generation share as unimportant, but we believe they are indicative of the fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector,” wrote Dennis Wamsted, an IEEFA editor and analyst. “As natural gas achieved earlier, renewable generation is catching up to coal, and faster than forecast.”

Liquid cerium catalyst.

New process could capture CO2 and make it coal again

Instead of burning coal and releasing CO2, new research plans to absorb CO2 and produce coal.


Image via Pixabay.

A new breakthrough could allow us to burn our coal and have it, too. Researchers from Australia, Germany, China, and the US have worked together to develop a carbon storage method that can turn CO2 gas into solid carbon particles with high efficiency. Their approach could help us scrub the atmosphere of (some of) the greenhouse emissions we produce — with a certain dash of style.

Coal idea

“While we can’t literally turn back time, turning carbon dioxide back into coal and burying it back in the ground is a bit like rewinding the emissions clock,” says Torben Daeneke, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow and paper co-author.

The idea of permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere isn’t new — in fact, it’s heavily considered as a solution to our self-induced climate woes. We’ve developed several ways to go about it, but they simply aren’t viable yet. Current carbon capture technologies turn the gas into a liquid form, which is then carted away to be injected underground. However, the process requires high temperatures (which means high costs) and there are environmental concerns regarding possible leaks from storage sites.

The team’s approach, however, relies on an electrochemical technique to capture atmospheric CO2 and turn it into solid, easy to store carbon.

“To date, CO2 has only been converted into a solid at extremely high temperatures, making it industrially unviable,” Daeneke explains. “By using liquid metals as a catalyst, we’ve shown it’s possible to turn the gas back into carbon at room temperature, in a process that’s efficient and scalable.”

“While more research needs to be done, it’s a crucial first step to delivering solid storage of carbon.”

The liquid metal cerium (Ce) catalyst has certain surface properties that make it a very good electrical conductor — the current also chemically activates the catalyst’s surface.

Liquid cerium catalyst.

Schematic of the catalytic process.
Image credits Dorna Esrafilzadeh, (2019), Nature.

The whole process starts with the team dissolving carbon dioxide gas in a liquid-filled beaker and a small quantity of the liquid metal. When charged with electrical current, this catalyst slowly starts converting the CO2 into solid flakes of carbon on its surface and promptly falls off, so the process can be maintained indefinitely.

“A side benefit of the process is that the carbon can hold electrical charge, becoming a supercapacitor, so it could potentially be used as a component in future vehicles,” says Dr Dorna Esrafilzadeh, a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in RMIT’s School of Engineering and the paper’s lead author.

“The process also produces synthetic fuel as a by-product, which could also have industrial applications.”

The paper “Room temperature CO2 reduction to solid carbon species on liquid metals featuring atomically thin ceria interfaces” has been published in the journal Nature.

Black lung disease makes resurgence among US coal miners

“This is history going in the wrong direction,” researchers say.

Progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), the most debilitating and deadly form of black lung disease, is increasing among US coal miners despite the implementation of dust controls decades ago, according to new research. Image credits: ATS.

Working in a coal mine is not an easy feat. The gruesome physical work, the closed spaces, and the lack of light makes for a hellish, unwelcoming environment. To top it all off, these miners often develop lung problems. The miners’ lung diseases weren’t well understood until the 1950s. Among these diseases, one was particularly prevalent: black lung disease.

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly called black lung disease, is caused by long exposure to coal dust and can have devastating consequences. In 2013, CWP resulted in 25,000 deaths, but this was down from 29,000 deaths in 1990. Although it’s still a very big number, the trend seemed to be going down; seemed being the key word here.

In a new study, researchers analyzed U.S. Department of Labor data collected from former coal miners applying for benefits under the Federal Black Lung Program since the program began in 1970 until 2016. The start of the program coincides with the adoption of modern dust control measures in mines, which is when you’d expect the CWP numbers to go down.

That is, indeed, what was observed — until a point. In total, 4,679 coal miners were determined to have PMF, which was not unexpected. However, the numbers started to go up again in recent years. Black lung disease seems to be making a surprising resurgence.

“We were, however, surprised by the magnitude of the problem and are astounded by the fact that this disease appears to be resurging despite modern dust control regulations,” Dr. Almberg said. “This is history going in the wrong direction.”

Dr. Almberg said that it’s not exactly clear why this is happening, but there are a few possible explanations. Firstly, the affected miners appear to be working in smaller operations, which are less likely to invest in dust reduction systems.  Secondly, modern mines also produce higher levels of crystalline silica, which is even more damaging to the lungs than coal dust. Lastly, miners appear to be working longer hours and more days per week, which increases exposure and gives their bodies less time to recover. The last part adds an extra layer of serious concern regarding the miners’ health.

“In general, the higher concentration of dust, the more days worked per week, and the more years worked, the greater the risk,” she said. “It’s a classic dose-response relationship.”

In recent years, however, the US coal industry has embarked on a steady decline, being compensated and slowly replaced by renewable energy.  Despite President Trump’s campaign pledges, the coal industry is not making a resurgence — it’s simply not profitable, and too dirty. Black lung disease, however, appears to be on the rise.

The findings will be presented at the ATS 2018 International Conference.

Chile to start phase-out of coal

After France, another country has recently announced plans to start eliminating dirty fossil fuels. President Michelle Bachelet says Chile will not build any coal plants without carbon capture and will start replacing existing plants with cleaner sources.

This could be the beginning of the end of coal in Chile.

Thanks to its geographical and geological context, Chile has excellent potential for renewable energy. With 15% of the world’s volcanoes and almost 10% of the world’s geysers, the country has vast geothermal potential. Northern Chile also has the highest solar incidence in the world and being a large coastal country, Chile is also quite windy. Yet despite all this, the energy production is dominated by fossil fuels. Coal and oil together generate more than half of the country’s energy, with hydro providing just over 30% in 2017. Wind, solar, and geothermal have been relegated to secondary sources, but that might soon change.

The energy ministry has reportedly secured an agreement with its major utilities to not built any coal plants unless they have the technology to store the emissions underground. While this is still less than ideal, it’s definite progress. No clear end date has been announced for the end of coal-burning, but environment minister Marcelo Mena has described this stage as “the beginning of the end of coal”.

“Thanks to significant reduction in costs and the massification of renewable generation technologies that have been incorporated into our [energy] matrix, the electricity generation industry sees an increasingly renewable future, where thermoelectric generation will no longer be the main source of energy and, together with hydroelectricity, other renewable technologies and storage, will complement variable solar photovoltaic and wind generation during the absence of sunlight or wind,” the press release read.

Chile has pledged to generate 70% of power from renewable sources by 2050. Especially since the controversial HidroAysén project was canceled in 2014, hydropower seems to be maxed out, so solar, wind, and geothermal will have to pick up the slack. A consortium formed by the National Petroleum Company and Enel have requested a concession to develop geothermal resources in the northern parts, while wind and solar power have also surged in recent years. Although this trifecta still only provides a small fraction of the country’s electricity, there’s a tremendous potential for things to change. If healthy policy is put in place, the transition to clean energy could happen quickly.

Coal phase-outs have been announced in several countries, especially in Europe. France announced it will stop burning coal by 2021, Italy by 2025, and the Netherlands by 2030. The UK is also shutting down its coal plants fast, and even in the US, coal power has dropped from over 50% in 2000 to 30% in 2016.

France Eiffel Tower.

France will shut down its coal plants by 2021, two years earlier than initially planned

France is doubling down on its plans to take coal out of the energy market.

France Eiffel Tower.

Image via Pixabay.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is pushing forward his country’s pledge to shut down all coal plants within two years. Initially introduced by Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, the plan was aimed at taking coal out of the European nation’s power mix by 2023 — now revised to 2021.

As only one percent of the country’s energy is produced from coal, the new administration’s announcement is seen as largely symbolic. Still, the message it sends is clear: with an increasingly environmentally hostile US, France wants to take the lead against climate change.

From little to none

“We’ve also decided to make France a model in the fight against climate change”, Mr Macron said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“We should stop opposing on one side productivity, on the other side climate change issues,” he added, saying the commitment brings France “a huge advantage in terms of attractiveness and competitiveness”.

Many other nations are also taking steps to phase out coal. China, currently the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, canceled work on 104 coal plant construction sites last year alone, and a body of national governments have joined in a common pledge to completely eliminate the fossil fuel from their energy mix by 2030. The EU as a whole also has doubled down on its efforts to get rid of coal.

There’s also solid economic reasoning behind this drive. The prices of renewable energy have been steadily dropping these past few years and, for many communities, coal is just not cost-effective anymore. That’s especially true for wealthier nations, which could afford to subsidize parts of the cost associated with renewable energy. And, as technologies improve and efficiency rises, renewable energy will become more affordable than fossil fuels across the board.

So, whichever way you look at it, going green makes perfect sense.

While France stands poised to lead the way there, addressing climate change will take more than the actions of a single nation or continent. In this regard, the US sticks out like a sore thumb. As Mr Macron drives France ever farther from coal, the Trump administration is committed to going in the opposite direction, making the revival of the coal industry a central campaign promise. Since taking office, he has reversed a series of landmark environmental policies set out by his predecessor Barack Obama and pulled the US out of the Paris Climate agreement.

In regards to climate action, the US is more isolated than ever before. As if to answer France’s symbolic pledge in kind, President Trump had to cancel his attendance at the summit in Switzerland following a government shutdown.

Catherine McKenna.

At climate talks, Canada steps up while the US steps down

During this week’s UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, Canada announced its plan to completely phase out the use of coal in power plants. This move runs in stark opposition to the US’ current official stance on coal, as the Trump administration pursues a revival of the industry.

Catherine McKenna.

Canadian Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is currently attending the COP23 talks in Bonn, Germany, trying to convince the world to phase out coal power plants.
Image credits Chatham House / Imgur.

Two years ago, political leaders gathered at COP21, the annual UN climate change talks, were making history by effectively jump-starting the Paris Agreement. A year later, enough countries around the world had willingly signed themselves and their environmental goals under the agreement for it to enter into force. Things were looking up. For once, all the world was united under a common goal, and that felt amazing.

This year, however, could not have been farther from that sentiment. The Trump administration has moved again and again in favor of the very industries and fuels everyone else is trying to move away from. It’s also repeatedly threatened to leave the Paris Agreement, and in June that threat was carried out.

Disheartening as the US’ exit may be, world leaders aren’t giving up on the Paris Agreement. This year’s talks are taking place in Bonn, Germany, aiming to settle on the rules for how the accord should be implemented, how carbon will be measured, and how to keep countries accountable for their promised emission cuts.

On this backdrop, the withdrawal of the world’s largest economy is an opportunity for other countries to step up to the plate and take the initiative. Canada and the UK, two countries that committed to phasing out coal in the energy sector by 2030 and 2025 respectively, are already doing so.

“Canada is committed to phasing out coal. We’ve created an alliance with the U.K., we’re going to get other countries around the world to help support moving forward on a coal phase-out. Coal is not only the most polluting fossil fuel but it’s also terrible for health,” said Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna before flying to Germany for the talks.

“If the U.S. is going to step back, we’ve said we’re going to step up, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”

McKenna and her British counterpart Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, are making a common front against coal as a power source. Coal fuels around 40% of the world’s energy production (10% in Canada) and accounts for over 40% of global CO2 emissions — emissions that we could slash with ease given the strides green energy tech has been making recently.

So the duo is launching a joint campaign, calling on other countries to promise not to build any more unabated coal-fired plants and phase out those already in use. Unabated plants are the ones that don’t incorporate carbon capture or storage mechanisms that can keep emissions from reaching the atmosphere. McKenna further told The Canadian Press that the Canadian government wants to help developing countries reduce their reliance on coal, but no funds have so far been earmarked for the task.

Since Canada and the UK announced their coal phase-out campaign last month, Italy and the Netherlands have also joined. France has also set a coal phase-out target by 2025.

Coal in the south

The anti-coal initiative comes in direct conflict with those of the Trump administration. Last month, EPA’s chief Scott Pruit gutted the Clean Power Plan, a bill requiring states to cut emissions based on energy consumption and offering incentives for renewable power and energy efficiency, saying the “war on coal is over”. On Monday, US officials hosted an event as part of the Bonn talks where they basically said that as the world won’t be rid of coal overnight, we consider nuclear power and “clean coal” as ways to limit emissions. Protesters held up the event and managed to shut it down for 10 minutes with a flash mob song.

Still, despite the current administration’s best efforts, the US isn’t in the coal basked just yet. On Monday, 15 US governors joined Canada and Mexico in signing an agreement focusing on clean transportation, carbon pricing, and a reduction of coal-fired electricity.

“Let’s be clear, there are many different versions of the United States that are here,” McKenna told CBC News from Bonn.

The two countries are also trying to get China and India involved in the coal phase-out. Should their efforts prove successful, it would be a major step forward. De-coupling India’s growing economy from coal would save us a big headache in the future. China has imposed itself as one of the major players in clean energy lately. The two would probably not agree to an immediate phase-out of coal but any steps in this direction would be a great boost for global efforts to limit emissions.

Trump negotiators brand coal as the solution for the climate crisis at UN conference

The decision of the Trump administration to host a pro-coal presentation at the UN climate summit in Bonn has angered both scientists and international diplomats.

Image credits: Pavlofox.

For the next two weeks, world leaders will gather in Bonn during the COP23 — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Two years ago, in Paris, the so-called Paris Agreement was agreed upon by almost every country on the planet, in a pledge to try to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. During the Obama administration, the US has been one of the key supporters of the Paris Agreement, especially through John Kerry, who was pivotal in the negotiations. But the Trump administration has vowed to exit the Paris agreement which, ironically, it won’t be able to do until 2020, when a new administration might step in. So Trump has sent a delegation to the UN conference, but the delegation is a bit unorthodox, to say the least.

The delegation seems in no way fit to contribute to climate talks. You could easily mistake it for a fossil fuel lobby group mean to push a corporate agenda.

Instead of sending scientists or environmentalists to what is, after all, an environment-focused conference, the delegation will feature public servants and fossil fuel representatives. Among others, speakers for coal giant Peabody Energy are expected to take the stage and speak about how coal can help curb emissions and reduce temperatures.

An alternate reality

Using coal to solve the climate problem is, to mildly paraphrase George Carlin, like screwing for virginity. Reactions from other participants were immediate and direct. Long-time talks participant Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented:

“It’s not a credible solution, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.”

“They might even welcome some of the reaction to show to their base that they are fighting for America’s interest and not this globalist malarkey.”

Others were even blunter.

“Fossil fuels having any role in tackling climate change is beyond absurd. It is dangerous,” said Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“These talks are no place for pushing the fossil fuel agenda. The US needs to come back to the table and help with the rapid cuts in emissions that the situation demands.”

Emissions in the US states. Image via Wikipedia.

Ironically, this comes right after a lengthy US report concludes that anthropogenic global warming is a certain reality and that direct action needs to be ready. Unfortunately, US leadership seems more interested in creating its own alternating reality than following scientific realities.

Who’s speaking for the US, though?

There are still some reasons to be optimistic. Despite Trump’s desperate efforts, much of America still supports the Paris Agreement and is fighting to keep the country’s emissions at bay. The US Climate Alliance, which represents 14 states and approximately 36% of the country’s population will participate in Paris as a different delegation. Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, says Trump’s plans will only ignite environmental offers.

“We need to make sure that the world maintains confidence in our ability to move forward,” he told reporters.

“So far, not one single nation state, city or county, municipality or school district have followed Donald Trump into the ranks of surrendering to climate change since he pulled out of Paris – his decision has energised our efforts.”

At a city level, there’s also a strong environmental movement. Over 7,000 cities worldwide have pledged their commitment to the Paris Agreement, including several hundred from the US. They too will have a delegation in Bonn.

“Whatever ‘America first’ is supposed to mean, it absolutely does not mean America alone,” said Mayor Lionel Johnson from the city of St Gabriel in Louisiana.

“My fellow mayors and I stand united and we stand with the international community to pursue solutions to the dramatic climate challenges we are facing together. Count us in!”

Two years ago, the COP was all about developing and signing the Paris Agreement. Last year, the main focus was the implementation of the pledges. This year, undoubtedly, the uncertain position of the US will be the focal point of the conference.

With or without the US, the world seems committed to work together and reduce emissions. Whether or not it will manage to do so before irreversible damage is done to the planet is a different discussion, but at least we’re taking steps in the right direction.

Cholla power plant.

Netherlands announces plans to phase out coal plants by 2030, puts coal’s future in Europe at doubt

The Dutch government has announced plans to close all coal power plants and ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Cholla power plant.

Image credits John Fowler / Flickr.

Last Tuesday, the Dutch government announced its road map for the country’s next few years. It was the product of more than 200 days of negotiations, during which time the new government established a course for issues ranging from sports to international diplomacy. One of the most exciting sections of this plan works towards ending the use of coal in Europe: the Netherlands will phase out all coal-powered plans by 2030.

Put it back in the ground

The country will shut down all power plants by 2030, including three that were built in 2015 which ciam to be more fuel efficient than the rest. Despite their higher output, these plants quickly started to decrease in value by 2016, according to Climate Home. The ban will also extend to petrol- and diesel-powered cars. Several publications have reported that the ban will extend to all such vehicles, but that’s not the case — only sales of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned starting 2030, according to Electrek.

The Dutch automotive market is fairly small, with roughly half a million passenger cars sold anually across the country. However, electric cars hold only 2% of that market, meaning the country still has ways to accomplish this transition successfully

“We are proud to have initiated our first pure-electric car sharing service in Europe and, in so doing, to help the city government of Amsterdam achieve its climate targets,” said Chief Operating Officer of Hyundai Motor Europe Thomas A. Schmid.

Given that the coal ban will likely causes prices to drop as offer outstrips demand, the government also set out plans to make sure it doesn’t simply make its way elsewhere in the economy. Such measures include setting a carbon floor price and striving to achieve greater carbon cuts than currently set.

In a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), IEEFA energy finance consultant Gerard Wynn said the government’s announcement “sent a dramatic signal to electricity markets today that no investment in coal-fired power in Europe is safe.”

“Today’s announcement highlights the risk of investing in either new or existing coal-fired power, and the lesson is clear: national coal phase-out plans such as this, combined with the rise of renewables and the impact on demand of improved efficiency, put old electricity-production models at risk,” he added.

The end goal is to reduce the Netherlands’ emissions by 49% and increase the overall emission reduction goal of the EU from the current 40% to 55%

“Failing that,” Climate Home’s Megan Darby writes, “the coalition said it would seek to agree [to] stronger action with ‘likeminded’ countries in northwestern Europe, to minimise any competitive disadvantage from tougher targets.”

This announcement places the Netherlands in line with other EU countries — France, the UK, and Denmark to name a few — who have all decided to phase out coal completely from their grids in the coming decades. All things considered, the future of coal in Europe seems limited — as governments rule to phase it out, confidence with investors will keep plummeting.

The Netherlands’ decision “sent a dramatic signal to electricity markets today that no investment in coal-fired power in Europe is safe,” says Gerard Wynn, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Frozen Earth.

Coal formation sucked so much CO2 out of the atmosphere that Earth nearly froze over 300 million years ago

A new paper showcases the massive effect CO2 levels in the atmosphere have on Earth’s climate, describing its link to the great cooling period in the Carboniferous and Permian ages.

Frozen Earth.

Image credits Kevin Gill / Flickr.

We call it a ‘greenhouse’ gas for a reason. Today, it’s most widely known for the part it plays in climate change — but 300 million years ago, CO2 was involved in one of the most severe cooling events in Earth’s history. Using a large ensemble of computer simulations, Georg Feulner from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research was able to model how coal formation in the late Paleozoic came inches away of locking Earth into a ‘snowball state’.

A leaky greenhouse

In the very distant geological past, Earth was a much warmer place. Overall, it had a more uniform, tropical, humid climate than exists today, and plant life was going rampant. Vegetation resembled what you’d expect to see in a jungle setting today, but even more bountiful. Trees especially (they were still recent-ish technology at the time) were turbocharged by warm temperatures and swampy environments, growing to huge sizes. They lacked tree-rings, suggesting they could sustain growth throughout the year. All off this eventually led to Pangea (the only continent at the time) becoming plastered with immense quantities of biomatter. Some 300 million years ago,

Swampy, plant-infested areas are prime breeding spots for coal. Since that was basically all of the dry land at the time, most of the quality coal we’ve ever mined formed in this period. So much so that geologists know one subdivision of this time as the Carboniferous, which translates to ‘the coal-bearer’.

One unexpected side-effect of all this coal being formed, however, was that CO2 in the atmosphere was increasingly sequestered underground. Because of this, the Earth began to rapidly cool down. By the end of the Carboniferous, a full-fledged Ice Age had developed, one which came very close to lock our planet in a permanently frozen state.

“This illustrates the enormous dimension of the coal issue,” Feulner says. “The amount of CO2 stored in Earth’s coal reserves was once big enough to push our climate out of balance. When released by burning the coal, the CO2 is again destabilizing the Earth system.”

His research shows that some of the changes in temperature at the time can be attributed to other planetary factors, such as the axis tilt and the planet’s orbit. However, it also shows that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere played the prime role in shaping the climate during the Carboniferous. Estimates drawn from samples of ancient soils and leaves show that CO2 levels fluctuated widely during this period, at one point dipping to about 100 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere — which is extremely low. Feulner’s models show that when atmospheric CO2 levels dip under 40 ppm, global glaciation is virtually guaranteed.

The flipside of Feulner’s findings is that burning coal today releases the CO2 captured over 300 million years ago. Today, we’re past the 400 ppm mark, which is above the 350 ppm deemed safe by the ICCP, but still under 450 ppm — a point where our chances of stabilizing the climate before planetary-scale irreversible damage is done are basically 50-50.

That’s because CO2 traps incoming heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming up the planet. Higher concentrations mean a higher percentage of incoming energy is trapped.

“It is quite an irony that forming the coal that today is a major factor for dangerous global warming once almost lead to global glaciation,” Feulner adds. “We should definitely keep CO2 levels in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million to keep our climate stable, and ideally much lower than that. Raising the amount of greenhouse gases beyond that limit means pushing ourselves out of the safe operating space of Earth.”

“Earth’s past teaches us that periods of rapid warming were often associated with mass extinction events. This shows that a stable climate is something to appreciate and protect.”

The paper “Formation of most of our coal brought Earth close to global glaciation” has been published in the journal PNAS.