Coal can be a part of the climate solution, with one small caveat...

coal emissions photo
CC BY-ND 2.0 dmytrok

Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief has just delivered a rather odd message to coal industry representatives. As reported in The Guardian, she argued that the coal industry can be a part of the climate solution, but only if it leaves vast amounts of coal reserves unburned:

Christiana Figueres told delegates at the International Coal and Climate summit in Warsaw that they had "the opportunity to be part of the worldwide climate solution" by switching off old coal power plants, capturing and storing carbon from new plants and leaving most of the world's coal reserves in the ground. She also said coal power could help poorer countries' economic development and poverty reduction, but that the industry "must change".

With economists (many of them conservatives) revealing the astounding costs of coal on our economy, many environmentalists were left fuming at Figueres' message—making the case that anything but a rapid withdrawal from coal power of any kind would be a flirtation with climate disaster.

Figueres, for her part, told environmentalists that it is not enough to talk to the committed.

TreeHugger has often marveled at the industry's enthusiastic "clean coal" campaign efforts. As Kate Sheppard noted over at Huffington Post last week, that enthusiasm appears to have dampened now that coal plants are actually being required to clean up their act.

Skepticism aside, Figueres' speech can arguably still be part of a broader push toward the greater good. After all, any (genuine) efforts by the industry to reduce emissions and clean up its act will both levy justifiable costs on coal which make renewables more competitive, and simultaneously buy us a little time to get the transition to a low carbon future right.

Sure, we environmentalists need to push for a 100% renewable future as quickly as possible, but as The Guardian article notes, entities like the World Bank are already moving away from funding new coal power plants—and with the world's largest investors urging action on climate change—tthe financial viability of the entire industry is increasingly coming into question.

The coal industry may well become obsolete in the not too distant future. But we'll have fewer emissions and a better chance of surviving climate change if it goes down trying to clean up its act.

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