ANALYSIS: Is the UN setting the coal industry up for failure?

Is the United Nations setting the coal industry up for a disappointment by urging them to adopt technology that’s not commercially proven?

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told the global coal industry on Monday that it needs to be part of the effort to stem global warming and change the way it does business for “everyone’s sake.”

“The world is rising to meet the climate challenge as risks of inaction mount, and it is in your best interest to make coal part of the solution,” Figueres said, adding that older coal plants must be closed to make way for new plants with technology to capture carbon emissions.

Figueres also warned the coal industry that most of the world’s coal reserves must stay underground to meet the UN’s climate goals of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius.

The World Coal Association agrees that the coal industry can be part of the solution through international support for the “immediate deployment of high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies wherever it is economic and technically feasible” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

However, a new report presented at the UN’s climate Warsaw, Poland climate talks claims that the most efficient coal-fired power plants — which have greatly reduced CO2 emissions — cannot be allowed to operate if the world is to avoid temperature rises above two degrees Celsius in the coming century.

The study, authored by 27 scientists from various universities and environmental groups, argues that without utilizing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, even the most efficient coal plant cannot be brought online without endangering the planet.

However, carbon capture and sequestration technology is precisely what the U.S. coal industry argues is not commercially available to meet emissions limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. There are no commercial scale coal plants using CCS in the U.S., the industry argues.

The EPA’s own justification for imposing CCS requirements on U.S. coal plants was based on three government-backed projects — one under construction in Mississippi and two planned in Texas and California. The agency also cited one Canadian government-backed project under construction.

Furthermore, CCS projects have been floundering globally as well. The New York Times reported that the number of large-scale CCS projects fell from 75 last year to only 65 in 2013. Five CCS projects were canceled, one scaled back and seven were postponed while only three new projects were added.

There are only twelve large-scale CCS projects in currently in operation around the world, according to the Global CCS Institute. The group reported that “while C.C.S. projects are progressing, the pace is well below the level required for C.C.S. to make a substantial contribution to climate change mitigation.”

Even the World Coal Association recognizes that at the current rate, CCS technology is not being deployed fast enough to achieve the UN’s emission reduction goals. WCA argues that countries must facilitate the deployment of CCS to meet UN goals — meaning more financing and programs for clean coal.

“Technology is at the heart of the climate debate,” said Milton Catelin, the World Coal Association’s chief executive. “The use of technology to combat climate change, however, is dependent on the support of the international community, through government policy and development bank funding.”

However, the Obama administration sparked an international coal finance boycott by refusing to fund international coal projects, except in rare cases. The World Bank, the European Investment Bank and Scandinavian countries have also taken steps to cap loans to coal projects.

“The trend of future coal use is changing rapidly. The World Bank, US development assistance and the US Import-Export Bank will no longer finance or support new unabated coal power plants internationally, except in rare cases,” said Professor William Moomaw of Tufts University.

“The United States Environmental Protection Agency has proposed carbon dioxide emission standards that rule out unabated coal power plants altogether,” he added. “The European Investment Bank and Scandinavian countries have taken similar steps.”

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