Is coal going to COP it? Not likely

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It’s true that burning coal as a fuel in the western world has been unfashionable for a long time.


Open fires in houses in London were banned further back than anyone can remember, and the current generation of British children now growing up are doing so in homes basking only in the occasional afterglow of a once great and mighty coal-fired power industry.


Ever hear tell of the days of coal, son?


Not really, dad.


That’s because everyone became ashamed of it.


Over the past couple of months though – even as the great and mighty COP conference was pulling its levers behind its curtain – if you’d actually invested in coal, you could have made a tidy packet.


Enough even, to secure the futures of your children’s children, if you’d done it right.


These days, though, that’s not easy to do in the Western World, as companies are increasingly leery of being involved with coal. For now at least Glencore has it, though. And so do Rio Tinto and BHP.


But pure-play coal companies? Not so much.


Which is strange, because coal, in spite of what they tell you, isn’t going to destroy the world. How could it? It’s simply a high-density form of energy storage.


Yes, global temperatures are rising, and yes it’s likely that the activities of the globalized industrialised and post-industrialised world are having an impact on that.


But by the time the world has actually managed to phase out coal, as opposed the current short-term planned increases and subsequent mooted “phasing down”, the chances are that new technologies or new science will have emerged that change the game in any case.


There’s Tesla coming along, not just with cars but with solar. There’s nuclear. There’s wind. And there will be more between now and the conveniently distant targets that politicians so brazenly set.


Net zero by 2050?


Most such dates and pronouncements fall conveniently after the careers of the politicians who make them will be over. By the time the dates actually roll around there will be no accountability and no-one to hold accountable.


What’s more – and although it seems unlikely at this present moment, in the current zeitgeist – the world is going to move on, and by the time these deadlines roll up there will be other, more pressing issues.


After all, science itself is going through a bit of a schizophrenic moment.


We have seen those who told us to “follow the science” repeatedly wrong-footed during the coronavirus pandemic, as our understanding of the disease updated itself.


Science in part comprises a body of knowledge that evolves. And although the scientific method, on its own terms, can provide a measure of objective truth, this objectivity doesn’t hold across all of science, only parts of it.


Will climate science change in the same way that coronavirus science has changed, namely as we garner more knowledge?


The evidence suggests that it will.


After all, it may be a hoary old critique, but the fact remains that in the early 1970s, climate scientists were warning us of a coming ice age, and amidst those warnings were issuing admonishments to the world’s leaders that preparations should be made.


We could have followed the science then, but we didn’t.


And who’s to say whether we were or we weren’t right? Maybe the ice age is still coming, but unacknowledged by the current consensus.


Coal is dirty, coal has social costs, coal has wider environmental impacts.


But it’s also hugely efficient at generating power on a cost-effective basis. For countries that are continuing to struggle to get not just millions but billions out of poverty and into some sort of social contract with the rest of the world, this last factor may outweigh and continuing to outweigh ongoing environmental concerns.


So don’t listen to what politicians say, watch what they do.


China continues to build coal-fired power stations and so does India. And who can blame them? After all, you never know which way the science is going to turn next.

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