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Coal consumption and warming to 2ºC: “high-efficiency” coal is not a “low carbon” technology

“It is misleading to speak about high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies unless equipped with CO2 capture and storage”.

A recent statement by leading climate and energy scientists offers a critical opinion on the coal industry and its efforts to clean up coal power. According to the statement,

“The most efficient coal-fired power plants emit more than about 15 times the amount of CO2 per unit of electricity compared to renewable energy systems, and more than twice the amount of efficient gas fired plants”.

Scientists from around the world published the statement in response to a recent attempt to qualify “high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies” as a climate solution.

The statement points out that only coal-fired power plants that have carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems can produce emissions low enough to be considered low carbon technology.

In Cancun, in December 2010, all countries agreed to keep the global temperatures from increasing above 2ºC. To stay within this limit, the world can only emit approximately one quarter of all known global fossil fuels (see Figure below). Any increase above 2ºC may lead to “catastrophic climate change”.

Image credit: http://bit.ly/1bXfVUg

Image credit: http://bit.ly/1bXfVUg

The authors concede that there are sectors of the carbon budget with no available alternatives, such as the liquid fossil fuels required for transport by air, sea, and heavy vehicles.

However, this indicates that sectors with energy alternatives, such as coal, need to work as quickly as possible to adopt technologies with near zero emissions.

Despite these challenges, the authors end their statement on an optimistic note. They acknowledge that there are alternatives to coal that are available and affordable, and a number of different institutions have policies that discourage the growth of coal-fired power plants. Such efforts include restricting financing to coal-fired power plants and emissions performance standards.

Governments of both public and private financial institutions can influence the transition to a low-carbon economy by scaling up their support for zero carbon technologies. This, in additional to national and international carbon policy, would help shift the global economy to a more sustainable, and equitable, state.

Access to the press release.

Download the joint statement from leading climate scientists.

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