A new position paper released last week by 12 organizations -- including the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Christian Aid, the Overseas Development Institute, and Oxfam International -- rips apart the coal industry's claim that coal is needed to fight extreme poverty and deliver energy access to billions of people.
Having worked on poverty eradication for decades, these organizations are a powerful and credible set of voices against the propaganda of the coal industry. This paper offers a new tool for debunking the coal industry's myths, and also provides useful information about the flexibility, reliability, and job-creation potential of renewable energy.
For years, the coal industry has been claiming that coal is critical for addressing energy poverty in the developing world. In reality, this sort of approach has been little more than a thinly veiled attempt to secure new markets, pursued only because the coal industry is failing so spectacularly in developed countries such as the United States. Vox's David Roberts recently pointed out several instances of the coal industry framing itself as a solution to international energy poverty, including claims by Peabody Energy, the World Coal Association, and Arch Coal.
As the authors of the new paper argue, however, coal is ill-suited to meet energy access needs in developing countries. Even when people live close to the grid, they may remain unconnected due to factors such as high connection costs. But the majority of the world's unelectrified -- 84 percent -- live in rural areas where the grid is even more out of reach. Meanwhile, decentralized and mini-grid solutions offer a fast and cost-effective alternative to delivering basic electricity.
The authors also point out that coal is the world's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, which significantly contribute to climate change, and that climate change threatens to push more people into extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, with 2 degrees Celsius of warming, up to 100 million additional people risk being pushed into extreme poverty if additional steps are not taken to protect them from the climate crisis. In addition to the poverty coal could cause through climate-related impacts, coal also contributes to poverty through human health impacts and consuming and contaminating limited resources, such as freshwater needed for livelihoods based on agriculture.
Coal proponents have also argued that coal has been key in reducing extreme poverty, particularly in China. However, the paper's authors caution that these claims have been vastly overstated. In fact, it turns out poverty reduction in China between 1981 to 2004 mostly happened prior to China's industrialization and large-scale expansion in coal power, through approaches including economic diversification. The graph below shows how coal was not strongly correlated with China's reduction in extreme poverty.
Because eradication of poverty and attainment of universal energy access are important goals, readers of the new paper will be pleased by the non-coal electricity options for providing electricity. Notably, various types of wind and solar electricity generation are cost-competitive with other energy sources and are also abundant, flexible, increasingly reliable, and create more jobs than coal.