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Webinar about energy transition: breaking free from coal

This week we had an amazing webinar Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior global campaigner on coal for Greenpeace. He helped us frame the energy transition that is necessary to break free from fossil fuels, and provided insightful details about coal.


Here we provide you a summary of the conversation, we hope you find it useful!


Furthermore, you can watch the whole webinar HERE.



What is your exact work at Greenpeace?


I have been working as a global campaigner on coal with Greenpeace International and Greenpeace East Asia in China. I specialise in air pollution from coal and the impacts of air polluting emissions from coal.


Different areas of the world have different situations regarding use of coal. Could you give us examples of different regions?


We speak a lot about the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate, but there is even a more imminent threat which is air pollution. It is estimated that about 3 million people die each year because of toxic particles.


It is a problem that is global, with China and India the worst affected. But  European Union, South East Asia, United States..they are very heavily affected as well.


China’s coal consumption almost tripled from 2000 to 2013. After that, this year we are mostly going to see consumption fall for the 3rd year in a row. Which is an incredible dramatic change, and changes our hopes to whether or not we can reduce global emissions on time to avoid the worst of climate change.


There are 4 reasons behind what is happening in China. One of them is that China is the biggest investor of the world in renewable energy. For the past two years, China has gotten all of its  additional power needs from renewable energy. And last year the increase of power generation of wind and solar alone was bigger than growth in electricity consumption.


There is a transformation that we saw already a decade ago in the EU. We saw it in the last 5 years or so in the US. And now in China, where all of the additional power is covered by renewable energy, and that’s a great step on breaking free.


China underwings a completely unprecedented boom in heavy industry and construction, which has left a huge amount of overcapacity and a massive burden of deads. This economic development model that China has  been pursuing, is not only environmentally unsustainable, but is also unsustainable in narrow economic terms. Which means that China needs to reinvent their economic development model.


And the final reason is the fact that the growing middle class has started to demand action on the terrible environmental problems that the country is facing. And coal use is one of the reasons behind, with about 60% of the toxic particles of air pollution in China coming from coal burning.


The UK has recently announced a coal face-out. Coal use fell more than 50% last year alone, because many of the aging coal fired power plants  retired. UK has really been leading the way in Europe on closing down coal fired power plants, while many other countries are still clinging onto their existing old coal fleets.


That’s a main question that Europe will face this year. There is going to be a decision about new air pollution emission limits for coal fired power plants. We have been highlighting that strong emission standards for new coal fired power plants could save 70.000 lives over the next 10 years, but many countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Spain… that have aging coal fired power plants are opposing setting meaningful limits, because they want to shield their power plants operators from  the costs of compliance.


In the US the coal use has been falling very fast over the past 10 years. Some of the gap has been covered by gas from fracking. But more than what people realise has been coming from renewable energy and efficiency.


Why it makes economic and environmental sense to phase out coal?


Coal is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the world and up until 2013 it was the reason why global emissions were increasing very fast. Coal burning alone was responsible for ⅔ of  the CO2 emission increase during that period. And that is why the coal use is going down in 3 out of the 4 major economies is such a big deal.


At the same time, coal is one of the main sources of air pollutants. The fossil fuel industry is killing  3 million people every year through air pollutants emissions.


When you consider these costs in human terms but also in hard economic terms it is absolutely clear that the faster we can shut down coal fired power plants the better of the economy will be.


Who is responsible that we still build new coal plants? What should be done instead?


You really have to look at it by region. China is still building a massive amount of  coal fired power plants, despite that power generation from coal is actually going down. What we have there is companies and local governments that are locked in in investing in coal just to see short term increases in revenues and GDP and with no thinking even a few years ahead.


India is starting to get renewable energy in a very impressive way. India has been hitting its ambitious targets for increasing  solar power and so on. There’s a possibility that India is going to see what happened in the US and in Europe before, where coal fired power plants were overbuilt. Even if there is definitely more demand for power in India, the construction is running ahead of the real demand. SInce 2011 we have seen the average number of hours that coal fired power plants can run in India fall.


The really encouraging thing is India is  that when you look at the price per kWh of electricity delivered by a new solar plant, compared with a new coal plant, solar is really starting to be competitive. And that comes from having the market started. Whereas Indonesia, Philippines, have been struggling with getting the market started, so there are problems with the state-owned electricity companies just being reluctant to shift from the old conventional power sources and initial boost being needed.


One country where we saw a very encouraging step recently was Vietnam. It has just started to put in place a fit in tariff program for solar plants to provide good investment conditions for  new solar and has been working on energy efficiency. Recently reduced the amount of coal fired power plants in their national power development plan.


So this kind of shift is possible. South East Asian countries have excelent condition for solar, Indonesia has excellent geothermal resources, and so on. But there are a lot of institutional constraints that will have to be removed before this countries can make the shift. You have to realise that scaling up the industry takes a bit of a push, the industry will only be competitive  if it reaches a scale, like it has in China, in India, in Europe.


Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam… they all have incredibly relaxed standards for emissions for coal fired power plants. So if you compare the standards with what they have in China and in India, these countries allow coal fired power plants to emit multiple times more air pollutants for each unit of electricity. That means that the operators don’t have to install the type of emission controls that would be required in China, Europe, Japan and so on. Which of course makes coal seem cheaper, but that is only because you allow massive health costs to be imposed on society.


What is the role of civil society on promoting this change?


One of the things I can say is about air pollution. Civil society has played an incredible important role in China. One of the most encouraging things in India is that the awareness about air pollution is starting to build up, and a lot  of that is individual people and small groups starting to highlight the issue and demand action.


And we know that the only way to stop climate change is for there to be a lot of pressure for politicians to take action.


Questions from the audience:


Is there an example of job creation from renewables versus job creation from coal plants?


One example is the Greenpeace Energy Revolution study that has been done for all the different regions in the world. We looked at the amount of jobs in the energy industry in a scenario where the world continues to rely on fossil fuels, versus a scenario where we go for renewable energy. And the finding is that there are more jobs in a renewable energy based future.


If you look at it from the perspective of an individual country, things like installing solar plants and wind farms, those jobs are quickly created in that country. And the installation is the biggest source of jobs of those industries.


I think Germany is one example of a country where, once it created a strong domestic renewable energy industry, that changed the politics. Because when you have a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on renewable energy, it becomes an industry that politicians find it hard  to mess with.


Some countries can change to renewable energy, but there are institutional constraints. What can be done?


I think one very interesting example of civil society is  the US, where the real turnaround in energy happened under the Bush administration. At that point it was very clear that high-level political lobbying  in the national capital you would not accomplish anything, because you had an administration that was totally supporting fossil fuels, and completely anti renewable energy.


What the environmental groups did instead was focus on local battles. Fighting every proposal for a coal fired power plant, on getting the existing polluting power plants closed down… that really changed things on the level of power utilities. So, when you look at it now, a lot of utilities in the most conservative states like Texas are going for wind because a lot of institutional issues got changed and the economics where suddenly on the side of the renewable energy.


There is definitively no one size fits all prescription for every country, but I do think that it can only be a combination of working with communities to stop the dirty projects, local communities that do need energy, to provide it in a sustainable way, highlighting how the dirty energy lobby is making it harder for clean energy to compete….


Is there anything like clean coal?


If you look at any country in the world and compare a new coal plant, renewable energy plant, gas plant built in that country, the coal plant is going to be the one emitting most CO2, the most pollutants.


There are big differences, as I said, to plants that are allowed in Indonesia and coal plants in Japan, but neither of them are clean. Even the power plants with the most aggressive air pollution emission controls, emit huge amounts of air pollution.


We have done health impact assessments on some of the power plants that have some of the most aggressive emissions controls, that would be the ones showcased as clean coal by the industry. And we still find that if you build a coal plant and run it for 40 years you still have thousands of premature deaths caused by those emissions.


Further resources


Boom & Bust: Tracking the Global Coal Power Pipeline: http://endcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/BoomBustMarch16embargoV8.pdf

The Great Water Grab – How the Coal Industry is Deepening the Global Water Crisis http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climate-Reports/The-Great-Water-Grab/  

How India overtook China in average air pollution levels: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/Global/eastasia/publications/reports/climate-energy/2016/Clean%20Air%20Action%20Plan,%20The%20way%20forward.pdf

Over 210 new coal-fired power plant projects being permitted in China: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/publications/reports/climate-energy/2016/coal-power-bubble-update/

Smoke & Mirrors – How Europe’s biggest polluters became their own regulators http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/en/Publications/2015/Smoke-and-Mirrors-How-Europes-biggest-polluters-became-their-own-regulators/


About Anna Pérez Català