Coal Ash Wednesday: The world's dirtiest business continues

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Running headlong into a global catastrophe:

Cheap, plentiful and the most polluting of fossil fuels, coal remains the single largest source of energy to generate electricity worldwide. This, even as renewables like solar and wind power are rapidly becoming more affordable. Soon, coal could make no financial sense for its backers. So, why is coal so hard to quit?

Because coal is a powerful incumbent. It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity — and retain their own power. In some countries, it has been a glistening source of graft.

I really do hate to throw this on you right after that stunning climate report, but there's no help for it. If we don't understand the scope of the problem, we'll never be able to solve it. Our advocacy here in the United States has been, if not wildly successful, at least a sign of steady progress. Older and dirtier coal plants have been shuttered, and relatively few new ones are coming online. But unfortunately, that is not the case in many other parts of the world:

Home to half the world’s population, Asia accounts for three-fourths of global coal consumption today. More important, it accounts for more than three-fourths of coal plants that are either under construction or in the planning stages — a whopping 1,200 of them, according to Urgewald, a German advocacy group that tracks coal development. Heffa Schücking, who heads Urgewald, called those plants “an assault on the Paris goals.”

Indonesia is digging more coal. Vietnam is clearing ground for new coal-fired power plants. Japan, reeling from 2011 nuclear plant disaster, has resurrected coal.

The world’s juggernaut, though, is China. The country consumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 million Chinese are employed in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. “I had to do the calculation three times,” said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.”

Ironically, this has been the thrust of Conservative arguments against signing treaties like the Kyoto Protocols and the Paris Accords, because they don't "crack down" hard enough on developing countries. But with Donald Trump gushing over "clean coal" and scoffing at world treaties like that, there is literally no incentive for those developing countries to get out of the coal business.

But that problem is being (seriously) exacerbated by China and Japan, who are in a race with each other to finance the construction of coal plants outside of their borders:

The much-discussed boom in coal-fired power in south-east Asia is being bankrolled by foreign governments and banks, with the vast majority of projects apparently too risky for the private sector.

Environmental analysts at activist group Market Forces examined 22 deals involving 13.1 gigawatts of coal-fired power in Indonesia and found that 91% of the projects had the backing of foreign governments through export credit agencies or development banks. Export credit agencies, which provide subsidised loans to overseas projects to assist export industries in their home countries, were involved in 64% of the deals and provided 45% of the total lending.

The majority of the money was coming from Japan and China, with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) involved in five deals and the Export-Import Bank of China (Cexim) involved in seven deals. All the deals closed between January 2010 and March 2017.

The lending comes despite the world’s biggest development bank – the World Bank – warning last year that plans to build more coal-fired power plants in Asia would be a “disaster for the planet” and overwhelm the deal forged at Paris to fight climate change.

“Right now, several key countries supporting the Paris climate change agreement are actively undermining it by trying to expand the polluting coal-power sector in other countries,” said Julien Vincent, executive director of Market Forces.

Here's another dose of irony: With Trump's trade war in full swing, the President is actually in a position to leverage China into curtailing this crazy coal rush--back off on tariffs if they back off on coal plants. But that makes way too much sense, of course. Trump would never give up his leverage in an effort to protect the planet, or any of the creatures inhabiting it.

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