Clear as Coal at COP15

Business Environment Trends & Culture - December 18th, 2009
Courtesy of

by Luke Poliszcuk

This month sees the world’s largest conference on climate change to date come to a head in Copenhagen. Between December 7 and 18, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), more commonly known as COP15, will have seen at least 10,000 participants discussing, wrangling, negotiating, and prevaricating on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Already the usual gaggle of ‘climate change skeptics,’ fully fueled with oil money, are filling the blogosphere with messages designed to confuse casual readers and cloud the issues with pseudo-scientific nonsense.

While there are a lot of complex elements, the essence of the debate is whether the society of the future is highly efficient or highly wasteful in its energy use, and whether the energy sources of the future come from highly polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, or from clean, renewable sources like wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy. Of course, if the fossil fuel industry giants have their way, these questions will just disappear with puffs of smoke and mirrors.

According to Congressional Quarterly, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent an average of $93,000 annually on federal lobbying between 2002 and 2007. But in 2008, that figure jumped dramatically to $9.9 million, and was accompanied by a $38 million ad campaign extolling the virtues of so-called ‘clean coal.’ By comparison, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership spent $870,000. For their efforts, the coalition obtained $3.5 billion in the US economic stimulus law for clean coal research and likely played a large part in watering down and delaying Obama’s key climate change legislation.

Of course, ‘clean coal’ is as much of an oxymoron as ‘healthy tobacco.’ It is just an attempt to greenwash a brown product. Even if carbon capture and storage (CCS) is implemented, the resultant energy loss from the process of capturing and hauling millions of tons of CO2 per year will dramatically reduce the energy efficiency of coal, increasing the amount we need to use for the same amount of power. One advantage of this is it will also reduce the cost efficiency to the level that solar and wind will almost certainly have better ROIs. However, as we all know, the issues related to coal are far from being just a question of energy efficiency or even cost effectiveness—we’re simply addicted.

‘Clean coal’ is like light cigarettes: a message that has been developed solely for PR purposes to divert attention away from how bad the truth is. But ‘clean coal’ doesn’t exist. CCS is far from being commercially viable, unlike other clean energy technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal. According to the US Department of Energy, “there are roughly 600 coal plants producing electricity in the U.S. Not one of them captures and stores its global warming pollution.”

The renewable energy industry has seen economic growth of 10 to 30 percent per year for over a decade, and in 2008, despite the economic downturn, for the first time clean technologies attracted more investment than fossil fuels. According to the Earth Policy institute, an investment in wind power produces nearly four times as many jobs as the same investment in coal power. Investments in solar photovoltaic power produce almost twice as many, and building retrofits more than seven times as many jobs.

Undoubtedly we will see a profusion of mixed messages with the conclusion of the COP15 conference, but let there be no doubt, the future of the planet’s energy must be clean, green, renewable and replenishable, and coal, oil and gas fulfill none of those criteria. As a society, it is important for us to evaluate all of the alternatives, but we also need to make sure that each alternative is evaluated fairly based on its net value to society, not based on how much money certain companies make from that alternative and how much they are willing to spend on misleading the public. Luckily the world is not so easily fooled.