Tackling climate change and reducing poverty can, and indeed must, go hand in hand. And the role for coal is rapidly shrinking, writes Helen Szoke.
Over the past year, the coal industry has become increasingly strident in mounting its case that coal is the beacon of hope for the more than one billion people living in poverty who still lack access to electricity.
If the rhetoric of the industry is to be believed, exporting more and more of our coal to countries including India will provide safe, reliable electricity to poor people, as well as continued prosperity for Australia.
But its argument does not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. And here’s why.
Firstly, emissions from coal are the biggest contributor to climate change. As a leading international agency working around the world, Oxfam is already seeing the world’s poorest people pushed deeper into poverty through the increasing risk of droughts, floods, hunger and disease due to climate change.
Secondly, there are serious limitations to the viability and cost effectiveness of coal and other fossil fuels to actually deliver electricity to those who still live without it. Over the past year, Carbon Tracker, Vasudha Foundation, The Australia Institute, Overseas Development Institute, Oxfam and many other organisations have explored the challenge of increasing energy access, with each providing robust evidence that distributed, renewable energy solutions are best suited to tackling energy poverty.
About four out of five people living without electricity are in rural areas that often lack connection to a conventional energy grid. The prohibitive cost of grid extensions, coupled with buying grid-based electricity, eliminates the cost advantage that coal may otherwise have.
In India, the coal-rich states have some of the lowest rates of electricity access in the country.
Local renewable energy sources – such as mini-grid and off-grid solutions like as small-scale solar PV and wind – not only offer a more affordable and practical solution for many communities, they are free of many other devastating impacts associated with coal.
Air pollution from coal is a cause of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths worldwide. Earlier this year, Oxfam documented how the Benga coal mine in Mozambique had forcibly displaced thousands of people, fractured communities, and left people without enough food and water. The remoteness and poor transport reduced people’s access to employment and other economic opportunities.
On the other hand, renewable energy has proven to be a catalyst for jobs, local economic growth and a more equitable model of development around the world. In Bangladesh, 3.5 million households have gained access to electricity through solar home systems, leading to better lives.
Throughout the Pacific, renewable energy such as solar is liberating communities from the crippling costs of fossil fuel imports.
Under the influence of an ailing coal industry, the Australian Government has been too busy distorting critical discussions about climate change and poverty alleviation to notice the striking shifts in energy and climate policy around the world.
It is here that the Government is risking Australia’s own future. Coal consumption in China fell 2.9 per cent in 2014 and has continued to fall precipitously through 2015 as the country funnels billions of dollars into renewable energy.
Meanwhile, the Australian Government’s assessment of the Indian coal market doesn’t adequately take into account recent dramatic changes in India’s energy policies. India has dramatically scaled up its renewable energy ambitions and aims to install 100GW of solar energy by 2022 in order to ensure universal energy access.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recently labelled the coal industry the poorest performing sector in today’s global economy. Failure to recognise these rapid shifts in the global energy landscape and to begin embracing our abundant renewable energy opportunities will damage the Australian economy and cost Australians dearly.
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