Not one but two climate change meetings are currently under way in Warsaw. You may be aware of the conference sponsored by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, another effort to agree cuts to carbon emissions after the failure in Copenhagen in 2009. In a provocative gesture, the Polish government is simultaneously hosting a summit meeting of the World Coal Association.
Whether we like it or not, it is the activities of the latter organization which have more significance for human health, wealth and the state of the planet.
Coal is no longer king of energy, it is global emperor. Coal is the fastest-growing source of energy and, according to the International Energy Agency, will remain the top fuel for power generation for the next two decades. Its affordability and accessibility will make it the electricity-generating fuel of choice in Asia, replacing expensive liquefied natural gas. And while America clips the wings of its domestic coal suppliers, banning new coal-fired power stations that don't meet stringent emission requirements, Europe has been topping up on U.S. coal, buying more in order to keep a lid on the escalating cost of power for European consumers.
Predictably, Greenpeace is protesting against the presence of coal industry executives, but it would be naive to assume that King Coal has turned up in Warsaw just to sneer at the failed efforts of the climate-change lobby. Coal miners are deeply worried – not just about climate politics, but about health. The biggest threat to the coal industry in the short term is not carbon taxes or permits, but the likelihood of killer smog causing thousands of deaths in a big Asian city, probably in China. The Chinese Communist Party has already signalled that it will no longer put pollution issues on the back burner while it turns up the gas in the economy. A wealthier China wants to be healthier, and that is good for the environment.
People with more money want to live richer, safer lives, but it is also true that poverty is the biggest enemy of scientific progress. The merchants of coal meeting in Warsaw reckon better technology is the solution: a huge deployment of funds into more efficient, low-emission, coal-burning technology, which they say could reduce CO2 emissions by a fifth.
Japan has recently abandoned its commitment to the Kyoto targets in reducing carbon emissions, arguing they are not feasible after the Fukushima disaster which wrecked Japan's nuclear strategy. It's a big blow to the UN Framework Convention. Meanwhile in Britain, a coalition government that prided itself on its green credentials has been blindsided by an unexpected political row over the cost of energy. Due to procrastination and policy confusion by a succession of left- and right-wing governments, Britain faces a looming power shortage. The government has just agreed to subsidize an expensive nuclear expansion. The Labour opposition accuse the utilities of price gouging, and propose to cap the price of electricity, if elected. The utilities insist that the soaring price of power is due to the cost of green initiatives and government-imposed mandates to buy expensive wind power.
Solving the problem of paying the fuel bill is a no-brainer for Europe. Coal is cheap and widely available (it still accounts for more 44 per cent of the U.K.'s power supply and 80 per cent in Poland). A further shift towards renewable power would wreck the competitiveness of European industry and would mean passing on crippling costs to consumers. But burning coal is problematic – we know for certain that it causes fatal diseases, and it may be warming the planet.
Coal miners know this. That is why they are preening and pouting in Warsaw. From present trends, it is abundantly clear that there is no solution to the problems of climate change or atmospheric pollution that does not involve the coal industry. There is also no solution to these problems without a huge financial investment in better technology.
Of the two Warsaw climate conferences, one is mainly a public relations exercise of old, unworkable ideas, of policies that would impoverish nations and put our futures in jeopardy. We know which one it is.