Most of world’s coal reserves will have to stay underground, says UN climate chief

Industry faces a risk that cannot be ignored, Christiana Figueres warns in Warsaw

Most of the world's coal reserves "will have to stay in the ground" and further investment in mines and coal-fired power stations could go ahead only if it did not jeopardise the goal of limiting global warming to two degrees, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres warned yesterday.

Addressing a coal and climate summit in Warsaw, organised by the World Coal Association to coincide with the UN's 19th climate change conference, she urged the industry to "honestly assess the financial risks of business-as-usual" in the context of its contribution to global warming.

'Two degrees'
"Like any other industry, you have a fiduciary responsibility," Ms Figueres said. "And by now it is abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can only go ahead if they are compatible with the two-degree limit."

Addressing the chief executives of coal companies, she said: “Let me be clear from the outset that my joining you today is neither a tacit approval of coal use, nor is it a call for the immediate disappearance of coal. But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.”


She urged the industry to follow the example of major oil companies and diversify their portfolios by investing in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. “The bottom line for the atmosphere is that most existing coal reserves will have to stay in the ground” to avoid catastrophic climate change, she said.

'Clean coal'
The World Coal Association's Warsaw summit was organised to promote "clean coal technologies, opportunities and innovations", suggesting that new technologies such as "carbon capture and storage" and underground gasification could transform coal into a "green energy" source.

Demonstrators from non-governmental organisations attending the UN conference protested outside the Polish ministry of economy building as Ms Figueres was delivering her keynote speech. Greenpeace unfurled a large banner reading, “Who rules Poland – the coal industry or the people?”

At the UN conference, which is being held at Warsaw’s National Stadium, young climate activists symbolically “kicked coal lobbyists” out of the venue after issuing a “people’s communiqué” highlighting the damage done by coal to public health, the environment and the climate in Poland and elsewhere.

Dr Michal Wilczynski, the former Polish deputy environment minister, said official scenarios estimated that in 2050 Poland will use 60 million tonnes of lignite and 50 million tonnes of hard coal, requiring the development of new coal mines and power plants, even though coal is the most polluting of fossil fuels.

Britain's former environment secretary, John Gummer, who is attending the UN climate talks as chairman of the British government's panel of climate change advisers, went further, telling the Guardian that "calling coal a clean solution is like characterising sex trafficking as marriage guidance". A group of 27 scientists from Germany, Japan, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the US issued a statement saying that "unabated coal combustion" was incompatible with the two-degree target and nearly three-quarters of coal reserves would have to be left underground to achieve it.

Coal reserves
Using estimates by the International Energy Agency of world coal reserves, the group said that burning just 26 per cent of those reserves without capturing and storing CO2 would breach the global "carbon budget" and run the risk of raising temperatures above the threshold.

"Coal is bad for the environment, our lungs and even our wallets," said Alden Meyer, of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Opening new coal-fired power plants or fitting existing plants with modern pollution controls made coal “increasingly uncompetitive compared with cleaner energy sources”.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor