Why divestment from coal is essential to unlocking climate change


A common reaction to proposals to cut pollution from fossil fuels is that doing so is too complicated and too difficult. In effect, there is nothing we can do that will make a difference.

The numbers tell a different story. The pollution that is modifying the atmosphere, oceans and climate comes mainly from burning fossil fuels. And a large chunk of this is from burning coal. As I write, 35.29% of the electricity powering my laptop is being generated by coal-fired power stations in the UK. 

In some ways this is extraordinary. For one thing, unlike so much of the technology on which we depend today, the basic process of turning coal into electricity has not changed since the Victorian era. At a time when we can turn sunlight into electricity we are still burning coal to heat water, to produce steam, to drive turbines to turn a generator to make electricity.

But it also illustrates the scale of the problem. Despite all the talk of efficiency and low-carbon technologies, over one third of our electricity is still generated by burning a highly polluting fossil fuel using a technology born in the steam age and in which nearly two-thirds of the heat is wasted.

The problem of dependence on coal is not confined to the UK. The Global Carbon Project calculates that in 2012 coal burning was responsible for 43% of total carbon pollution, with oil accounting for 33%, gas 18%, cement 5% and gas flaring 1%.

The same year carbon pollution from fossil fuels and cement production was some 58% higher than in 1990 (the reference year for the Kyoto Protocol) and 2% higher than the previous year, making the figures in 2012 the highest annual total to date.

As the editor of Energy World put it in January, ‘Global carbon dioxide emissions are at record high levels and coal burning is the principal culprit.’

So it is obvious that any solution to climate change requires rapid removal of coal from the global fuel mix.

This won’t come as news to the fossil fuel industry. Half the total carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels has been emitted in the last 25 years, well after the date when governments began to be told that pollution from fossil fuels changes the climate system. Yet the response from the fossil fuel sector is to go on a spending spree like no other in search of new fossil fuel reserves: of oil, gas and –yes – coal. At exactly the point when we need a radical change in direction, fossil fuel companies are literally digging in.

This is why Operation Noah is calling on Church investors in the UK to pull their money out of fossil fuels, including coal. Doing so will send a clear signal, to governments, the market and the fossil fuel companies, that a business model good for the steam age is unfit for the twenty-first century.

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