Burning Coal Drives Global Poverty as Well as Climate Disaster, New Paper Argues

Villagers near Jharia, India carry scavenged coal from an open-cast mine. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images)

Burning Coal Drives Global Poverty as Well as Climate Disaster, New Paper Argues

Development coalition debunks myth that cheap, dirty coal is somehow a solution to extreme global poverty

Putting to rest the industry argument that cheap, dirty coal is somehow a solution to extreme global poverty, a coalition of development experts published a new paper on Tuesday arguing that, in fact, coal is one of the major forces driving climate change, which they say is "the greatest long-term threat to eradicating poverty."

The paper, Beyond Coal: scaling up clean energy to fight global poverty (pdf), makes the case that in developing nations, coal has been given "too much credit for the reduction of extreme poverty."

Moreover, the coalition--which includes the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Oxfam International, and the India-based Vashuda Foundation--argues that the widespread use of coal has had a detrimental impact on poor populations while at the same time contributing the most carbon emissions of any fuel source, hastening dangerous climate change.

"The immediate human health impacts of coal in the developing world are staggering, particularly for poor people who are the least equipped to deal with the economic burdens of illness, a premature death in the household, or degraded water and land resources," the paper notes.

Further, climate change threatens "to undermine the productivity of both marine and terrestrial food production systems, the main source of income for roughly 2.7 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and China."

But "beyond these immediate impacts," the paper continues, "burning coal is also a major driver of the greatest long-term threat to eradicating poverty: climate change." The report cites a 2015 study by ODI which found that by 2050, climate change impacts could draw an estimated 720 million people into extreme poverty.

"This is about the same number lifted out of extreme poverty in the last two decades and would thus cancel out much of the progress made in poverty eradication to date," Tuesday's paper notes.

In contrast, safe, renewable energy sources are "abundant, increasingly reliable, and now cost-competitive with coal," the report states. Further, "It can also be more flexibly deployed and offers greater employment potential. It improves energy security and [...] can deliver energy services to the poorest."

"There are myths that we're trying to pull up the ladder and deny developing countries the chance to develop the way we did," Sarah Wykes, report co-author and the lead analyst on climate change and energy issues for Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But you don't need these kinds of dirty fuels anymore for economic development. There are much better clean alternatives."

The paper comes the same day that the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that renewable energy is expanding a faster rate than expected, largely due to efforts within the United States and China to increase solar and wind capacity. "We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

The coalition paper calls on all governments to immediately begin phasing out "all forms of public support for coal capacity expansion," and for the richest nations to halt "all forms of subsidy for fossil fuels."

The paper concludes, "To achieve the ambitions of the Paris Climate Agreement," as well as the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate global poverty and achieve universal access to energy by 2030 "an urgent shift to renewable and efficient energy systems is required."

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