New coal plants 'most urgent' threat to the planet, warns OECD head

Monday 06 July 2015

Governments must rethink plans for new coal-fired power plants around the world, as these are now the “most urgent” threat to the future of the planet, the head of the OECD has warned.

In unusually strong terms for the organisation – best known as a club of the world’s richest countries – its secretary general Angel Gurria, told governments to think “twice, or three, or four times” before allowing new coal-fired plants to go ahead.

“They will still be emitting years from now,” he warned. As a result, many could turn into “stranded assets”, having to be mothballed decades before their economic lifetime had expired. “We are on a collision course with nature,” he warned.

New research, published by the OECD on Thursday, has found that, on current trends, coal-fired power generation will result in more than 500bn tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere between now and 2050. That is the equivalent of about half of the “carbon budget” – the amount of greenhouse gas that we can safely pour into the atmosphere – for this half-century, if we are to stay within the 2C limit that is widely agreed as the threshold for dangerous climate change.

Gurria said that financing from rich countries to provide access to renewable energy in developing nations as an alternative to coal should form a key part of the discussions in the run-up to the crunch UN climate talks in Paris in December. Governments are hoping to agree a new deal on greenhouse gas emissions involving all countries, to take effect from 2020 when current commitments expire, and with absolute cuts in emissions from the rich nations and curbs on the growth of future emissions from the poor.

Coal has become a more popular form of generation in recent years as it has fallen drastically in price. This is one result of the shale gas boom in the US, which has seen gas prices tumble, with gas-fired generation taking off in turn, and a glut of cheap coal thrown on to international markets. In addition, many developing countries have coal mines but no indigenous gas resources, making it seem an attractive option for cheap power generation.

Gurria argued, however, that coal was “not cheap” when the full costs – including climate change impacts, air pollution and its effects on health – were taken into account. “Governments need to be seriously sceptical about whether coal provides a good deal for their citizens.”

He said the cost of renewable energy was reducing rapidly, and so it represented a good investment for developing countries and donors to them. “Prices have been falling very, very fast, to [levels] that we would not have imagined a few years ago,” he said, in comments to journalists ahead of a lecture at the London School of Economics.

Although rises in global greenhouse gas emissions have been slowing, Gurria warned that “we have our work cut out for us” to bring about the falls needed to meet the carbon budget necessary to keep within 2C of warming compared with pre-industrial levels.

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