Around the world, more than 2,400 coal power plants are now under construction or being planned, experts say. Two-thirds of those are in China and India - both countries already struggling with growing deaths from air pollution. Building even a third of those plants would push the world past the international goal agreed in Paris last December to hold world temperature increase to "well under" 2 degrees Celsius.
A coalition of development experts which includes the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Oxfam International, have published a new paper disputing the claims that cheap, dirty coal is somehow a solution to extreme global poverty. The paper, Beyond Coal: scaling up clean energy to fight global poverty (pdf), makes the case that in developing nations, coal has been given "too much credit for the reduction of extreme poverty." In fact, they argue coal is one of the major forces driving climate change, which they say is "the greatest long-term threat to eradicating poverty." They say the widespread use of coal has had a detrimental impact on poor populations while at the same time contributing the most carbon emissions of any fuel source, hastening dangerous climate change.
"The immediate human health impacts of coal in the developing world are staggering, particularly for poor people who are the least equipped to deal with the economic burdens of illness, a premature death in the household, or degraded water and land resources," the paper notes. Further, climate change threatens "to undermine the productivity of both marine and terrestrial food production systems, the main source of income for roughly 2.7 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and China."
The paper continues, "burning coal is also a major driver of the greatest long-term threat to eradicating poverty: climate change." The report cites a 2015 study by ODI which found that by 2050, climate change impacts could draw an estimated 720 million people into extreme poverty. "This is about the same number lifted out of extreme poverty in the last two decades and would thus cancel out much of the progress made in poverty eradication to date."
In contrast, safe, renewable energy sources are "abundant, increasingly reliable, and now cost-competitive with coal," the report states. Further, "It can also be more flexibly deployed and offers greater employment potential. It improves energy security and [...] can deliver energy services to the poorest."
"There are myths that we're trying to pull up the ladder and deny developing countries the chance to develop the way we did," Sarah Wykes, report co-author and the lead analyst on climate change and energy issues for Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD), explained. "But you don't need these kinds of dirty fuels anymore for economic development. There are much better clean alternatives."
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has warned if Asia goes ahead its planned coal plants, "I think we are finished. ... That would spell disaster for our planet." The coal industry is a powerful and established lobbying group, she said.
The coal industry has fought back against criticism, arguing that coal is the cheapest and most reliable way to bring power to millions without it, claiming "clean coal" technology offers emissions 25 to 40 percent lower than traditional coal plants.