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No, Coal is NOT the Fix-All Solution to Energy Poverty

06/26/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
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Pope Francis' papal encyclical on climate change and the environment, titled "On the Care of Our Common Home", was released last Thursday, recognizing climate change as a moral issue (the poor will suffer the most from a changing climate), while also calling on political leaders to replace fossil fuels with less-polluting sources of energy. The encyclical endorses the science that says climate change is human-caused, resulting from coal, oil, and natural gas use, and also states that humanity is failing in "its God-given role to be a responsible steward of Earth," while time is running out to fix the problem. Papal encyclicals are one of the highest forms of papal teaching, expected to be taken very seriously by Catholics.

In what is a victory for climate hawks (the encyclical is basically a call to action targeted at the Vatican's bishops around the world), the encyclical provided a new target for conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere; conservative media in the U.S. came up with all types of critiques in response to the Pope's new encyclical; Australian climate deniers insisted that "if you're an Australian, [the encyclical] is not good news"; while in Poland (a largely Catholic country dependent on coal), a conservative paper called the encyclical 'anti-Polish.' In the U.S., the coal industry relied on their GOP allies to dissuade the public of the Pope's stance by providing U.S. Republicans a list of talking points to be used in defense of fossil fuels. One of these talking points was the claim that "[only coal] is capable of providing the energy emerging economies and struggling communities need to rise up out of abject poverty and towards a new-found hope"-- basically an attempt to out-do Pope Francis' moral integrity.

How important is coal to eliminating energy poverty? Is coal really the solution to achieving energy access and thus eliminating poverty? Although fossil fuels and renewable energy are not mutually exclusive in aiding development efforts, the truth is that this claim is just another attempt by the industry to justify the continued use of fossil fuels. When we take a closer look, we can actually see that research and policy as well as development banks like the World Bank acknowledge and support the importance of renewable energy in achieving economic development and universal energy access.

Renewables are essential for bringing power to poor regions: they can be built locally and on a small scale, eliminating the need for long-distance transmission lines and thus bringing electricity to places that aren't connected to the power grid (about 84 percent of people without energy access live in rural areas, areas that often lack access to a centralized grid). It is also cheaper and faster to build a solar or wind farm than a coal or gas-fired plant. The cost of solar panels are falling, and according to the New Climate Economy report, panels are now half the cost they were in 2010-- down 80 percent since 2008--making them competitive with coal and gas. None of the main energy poverty initiatives promote the use of coal, and development banks like the World Bank will finance new coal power generation projects "only in rare circumstances." In the World Bank's report Toward a Sustainable Energy Future for All: Directions for the World Bank Group's Energy Sector, the Bank acknowledges that "in rural, remote or isolated areas, off-grid solutions based on renewable energy combined with energy-efficient technologies could be the most rapid means of providing cost-effective energy services."

Coal has not been able to bring energy access to everyone. Take India, for instance, with the fifth largest electricity generation sector in the world, at 210 gigawatts (GW). Despite the fact that 66 percent of India's electricity comes from coal, one-third of the rural population in India does not have access to electricity. In fact, last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government announced that they planned to use solar power to allow every home in India to run at least one light bulb by 2019---not coal, but solar, as solar has the potential to create jobs and "supply millions of scattered households not connected to the grid." Modi's government also aims to bring in $100 billion by 2022 to boost India's solar energy capacity by 33 times to 100,000 megawatts (MW).

Last November, the Australia Institute, a think tank, released a study called All Talk, No Action: The Coal Industry and Energy Poverty, which disproved the coal industry's claims that fossil fuels are the solution for people in energy poverty. The study revealed that coal use does not drive economic growth, doesn't increase life expectancy and quality of life, and is not getting 'cleaner', in response to Peabody Energy's claim that coal is the panacea to energy poverty. The study argues that Peabody's claim "mistakes correlation with causation," and that, in fact, while economic growth has been steadily rising over the past couple of decades, coal use has been leveling out.

The industry's moral argument for using coal is also extremely weak when we take into consideration the negative impacts on human health associated with coal use. Coal-fired power plant emissions result in lower life expectancy and high levels of respiratory illnesses including pulmonary disease, asthma and chronic bronchitis. Greenpeace estimates that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and health costs that amounted to $3.3-$4.6 billion per year. A study on data from China reveals that life expectancy in northern China, where coal pollution is concentrated, to be about 5.5 years shorter than in other surrounding areas. Moreover, as Pope Francis acknowledges, the poor communities that the coal industry alludes to as needing coal to escape poverty will be--and already are--greatly affected by a changing climate and exacerbated poverty as a result of climate change impacts.

The coal industry and climate change deniers are losing the battle and Pope Francis' encyclical is one significant example of this. Desperation has led them to rely on unfounded claims that are contradictory to what they actually do; the Australia Institute's study found that Peabody Energy does not invest in any project that directly alleviates energy poverty and that coal companies that have supported energy access initiatives have done so through renewable, off-grid solutions because it is more cost-effective: Adani provided solar-powered street lighting in rural India, BHP Billiton backed solar in Pakistan, while Rio Tinto connected Peruvian villages to hydro and gas-fired power grids -- so much for coal being the saving grace.