This year’s edition of the Great Greenhouse Gas Show, COP23, has just been held in Bonn, Germany. During the event, Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, along with her British counterpart, worked on building a coalition of countries that will push for eliminating coal-fired power. There’s just one small problem: Even if coal-fired power plants only account for 11% of Canada’s electricity capacity, and that percentage is decreasing, 41% of the world’s production of electricity is fueled by coal. For poorer countries, coal is often the best choice in extending the availability of electricity to households.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), about 1.1 billion people, among the poorest on the planet, have no access to electricity in their homes in 2017, and 2.8 billion use wood, kerosene, dung, or coal fires for their daily cooking and heating needs. Interior air pollution, because of these household fires, is responsible for 2.8 million premature deaths per year in the developing world. Collecting wood is furthermore a time-consuming activity (mainly falling on the shoulders of women) and this time could be put to better use.
In 2030, the IEA predicts that 675 million humans will still have no access to electricity, and 2.3 billion will still be wasting their time trying to collect enough fuel, which will pollute the air they breathe at home. Yet, much progress is being made: From 2000 to 2012, 60 million more people per year got access to electricity. Since 2012, this progress has accelerated to 100 million per year.
But we still have a long way to go, and this road to success is paved, and will continue to be paved for a good long while, with coal, an inexpensive and technologically easy to use energy source. In fact, the countries that have recently made the biggest breakthroughs in electricity accessibility (Indonesia, China, and India) have also built substantial numbers of coal-fired power plants.
But shouldn’t we be focusing on reducing GHG emissions? According to the IEA, even if producing electricity with coal produces significant GHG emissions, it also leads to a reduction of the burning of biomass and coal by households. The net effect of the use of coal to power electricity plants is therefore null or negligible, simply because if developing countries can’t use coal to produce electricity, their citizens will turn to even more polluting ways of cooking and heating their homes.
Leading by example instead of moralizing the poor
Canada’s campaign against coal power plants is ill advised. If it works, it will have very little effect on global GHG emissions. Success would, however, contribute to keeping more people living in miserable conditions. In fact, this war on coal is a war on the planet’s poorest people. The half-baked Canadian position, resembling virtue signalling more than a carefully thought out project, should be re-examined. Assuming, of course, that the government really cares about the poorest of the poor.
In countries in which access to electricity is not a problem, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, reducing the use of coal is probably a good idea, as long as there are economic alternatives. So why don’t we lead by example, instead of trying to impose a useless burden on the developing world.
Germain Belzile est chercheur associé senior à l'IEDM. Il signe ce texte à titre personnel.