The international community is on a runaway coal train, the train is speeding toward a terrible wreck, and there appears to be no way to stop it. That, minus the metaphor, is the picture painted by the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). It predicts that the use of coal - the dirtiest of the fuels causing global warming - will continue growing at a "relentless pace" in the years ahead.
Absent some technology that does not yet exist at the level of maturity and scale to slow the train, it follows that carbon emissions will grow relentlessly too and so will the impacts of global climate change.
On top of the physical damage, there will be some substantial economic damage farther down the track, a topic not addressed in the IEA report. Many of the countries important to the future of the global economy are at highest risk from climate change. Many of same countries are producing, importing, exporting and burning more coal, increasing their risk even more. The irony is that they are burning coal for economic development and in doing so, they are committing econocide by carbon. Unfortunately, in our shared atmosphere and global economy we all are along for the ride.
Before elaborating on that, let's further review IEA's findings. The agency looked at world energy trends over the next five years. In her remarks at the release of the report, IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven underscored three conclusions.
First, "Like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come." The agency's number-crunchers predict the global demand for coal will go up 2.3% each year between now and 2018.
Second, coal-burning is all but inevitable because the fuel is abundant, geopolitically secure, easily integrated into existing power systems, cheap and readily available to provide the electric power developing and less-developing countries need to rise out of poverty.
Third, "coal in its current form is simply unsustainable".
Which is to say that coal burning is both inevitable and unsustainable. Which is to say Train Wreck.
Ms. Van der Hoeven continued: "Radical action is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, yet that radical action is disappointingly absent." There is no international price on carbon; most of the coal-fired power plants being built around the world are the dirty old-fashioned kind; and the holy grail of the coal industry - carbon capture and sequestration - is going nowhere.
The econocide side of the story becomes clear in data from several other sources including the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA);IndexMundi, which gathers and analyzes a wide variety of data from around the world; and Maplecroft Global Risk Analytics, a UK company that does what its name implies.
Worldwide: Maplecroft has concluded that high or extreme risks of climate disruption are present in nations that could contribute 31% of global economic output in the years ahead. They include "67 countries whose estimated combined output of $44 trillion will come under increasing threat from the physical impacts of more frequent and extreme climate-related events such as severe storms, flooding or drought."
China: China is the word's large producer and consumer of coal and the second-largest coal exporter. It accounts for nearly half of world consumption according to the EIA. Its coal consumption grew 9% in 2011, nearly as much as rest of the world combined. China is at high risk from climate change.
Indonesia: In 2011, it became the world's largest exporter of coal by weight. Its production quadrupled between 2001 and 2011. The EIA reports that Indonesia's government not only tolerates the use of coal; it encourages it in its power sector. Coal burning for electricity is expected to more than double by 2014. Indonesia is at high risk from global climate change.
India: India's coal reserves are the largest in the world and coal is its primary source of energy, mostly used to generate electricity. It is at extreme risk from climate change.
Vietnam: It produced more than 49 million short tons of coal in 2011, half for export. In 2013, the Vietnamese government took steps to reduce exports to keep up with its growing domestic demand for electricity. That demand, which quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, was met by coal, hydropower and natural gas. Demand for electric power is expected to more than triple by 2020. Vietnam is at extreme risk from climate change.
Cambodia: Cambodia used no coal until 2008. Since then coal consumption has skyrocketed, rising 26.5% between 2010 and 2011. The country is at extreme risk from climate change.
Philippines: The Philippines consumed nearly 20 million short tons of coal in 2012, nearly half produced domestically. Its coal consumption rose nearly 34% between between 2009 and 2010 and another 9% from 2010 to 2011. Coal production and consumption is expected to continue rising. The country is at extreme risk from climate change.
Thailand: Its coal consumption rose nearly 6% from 2010 to 2011. Its coal use in 2011 was more than 25 times its use in 2008. Its climate risk is rated as extreme.
Bangladesh: Coal consumption in Bangladesh grew more than 47% from 2010 to 2011 and nearly tenfold since 1980. Bangladesh faces more severe climate risk than any other nation, according to Maplecroft.
A growing number of international lending institutions see where the train is going and are following President Obama's policy of not supporting financing for coal-fired power plants overseas. The World Bank announced a similar policy in July. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has just adopted guidelines that will restrict funding for any coal plant that doesn't use carbon capture and storage technology. The United Kingdom jumped aboard last month with a policy that mirrors Obama's, and several other international lending institutions have taken the same position.
The purpose of disinvesting in coal is not to slow or suppress economic progress in the developing world; it's to help all nations achieve and sustain prosperity in cleaner, more resource-efficient and less disastrous ways. Disinvestment is one part of what should be a several-part international action plan. We need to redirect investments in carbon fuels to low-carbon fuels. We need an international tax on carbon. We need to end fossil energy subsidies while creating better ways to end energy poverty. We need to leave two-thirds of the world's proven fossil energy reserves in the ground, as a previous IEA report concluded.
In short, we need to stop the coal train. We're all on board and it's hell-bent for disaster.
Follow William S. Becker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sustainabill