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Coal inexorable tragedies

November 21, 2017



My favorite book when I was a teenager was “Germinal”, from 19th century French author Zola. It pictured the unvarnished truth of coal miner’s conditions of that time: poverty, tough conditions, health related problems, and tragic accidents of miners blocked into the coal mine, after a firedamp or intentional sabotage. You can visit these old coal mines in Northern France, Wallonia and all over Europe including Hungary. They contributed to the 19th century industrial revolution and represented the 20th century backbone for energy production.


The European Union was built around a coal and steel community before it developed into a political project. Indeed, coal also contributed to war efforts during the two world wars in Europe… Robert Schuman with Jean Monnet among others, acted to put an end to further similar tragedies.


Is this the reason why France, the UK, Italy, Portugal, Finland, Belgium and other countries joined together with Angola, Canada and pioneering cities, an alliance at COP23 to further ban coal from their energy Production? Isn’t it time to end another ongoing tragedy: climate change and its impact at world-wide level? Coal Production is indeed considered as the most polluting energy sources, even with recent innovative progress. Indeed, coal production accounts for 30% more GHG emissions than oil, and 80% more than natural gaz. Coal extraction emits dusts, particles, soot. In addition, the mountain top removal systems create pollution for rivers and soils located nearby (acidification). It is proven that it has a direct impact on health (heart and lung diseases), and on further soil and rain pollutions.  


 Coal production is the first source of energy production in the world (40%), but the most polluting one both for climate and air quality. Global Coal demand has almost doubled since 1980, driven by increases in Asia, where demand rises over 400% since 1980. Asian demand is dominated by China and demand in China increased five-fold between 1980 and 2010 and accounted for 73% if Asia’s consumption and almost half of coal consumption globally. In the meantime, it has sharply declined in Europe, especially in the countries powered by nuclear energy (Finland, UK, France…). Both in Europe and Russia, coal consumption declined between 1980 and 2010. In North America, the growth of regional coal consumption raised by 50% (international energy statistics). This shows that Coal production is not the energy from the poor. It is a political choice in the 2 largest world economies: the US and China. The reason advanced to further invest in coal, does not seem to be the employment of coal miners, but rather energy independence, and short-term economic interest.


Counterexamples to scrap coal production exist. The case of the UK is particularly compelling. According to the Guardian, coal supplied just 2% of power in the first semester 2017. The fall has been precipitous. This could not have happened without pollution laws and carbon taxes leading to the closure of main ageing plants in the last years.  But in 2009, there were still discussions going on, as to whether coal could be the future. This shows that only a strong political commitment can lead to disinvestment. This can also question the impact of the German “Energiewende” to shift from nuclear energy to other types of energy including maintenance of coal production. Finally, the organization of COP24 in Katowice, in a country more than 70% dependent on coal, is raising concerns as whether this will jeopardize further efforts. But before further earth summits are organized in the next week, it is good to keep in mind that coal production is not the energy from the Poor. It is a political choice. In the book “Germinal” the coal mine was pictured as a beast eating human beings…let’s make sure it does not lead to further irreparable tragedies.

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