Share story

WARSAW, Poland —
In a speech Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal-industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke to industry leaders at the World Coal Summit, which the Polish government called somewhat incongruously to run at the same time as an important U.N. climate conference led by Figueres.

Poland relies on coal for nearly 90 percent of its electricity, and the government has upset the European mainstream by spurning efforts to slow the use of the fuel.

Figueres told the coal executives that they were putting the global climate and their shareholders at a “business continuation risk” by failing to support the search for alternative methods of producing energy.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“Let me be clear from the outset that my joining you today is neither a tacit approval of coal use, nor is it a call for the immediate disappearance of coal,” Figueres said. “But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.”

One option would be to capture emissions of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants and inject them into deep underground formations, but development of that technology, known as carbon capture and storage, has received little support from the industry or from governments.

Godfrey Gomwe, chairman of the World Coal Association’s energy and climate committee, responded in a speech that, with “1.3 billion people in the world who live without access to electricity,” the questions of climate change and poverty reduction could not be separated.

“A life lived without access to modern energy is a life lived in poverty,” said Gomwe, who is also chief executive of the mining company Anglo American’s thermal coal business. “As much as some may wish it, coal is not going away.”

The answer to coal’s carbon-pollution problem, Gomwe said, was investment in higher efficiency plants to reduce emissions, with the developed world helping poorer countries if needed.

Environmentalists criticized the very existence of the coal summit. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. advocacy group, called the summit meeting “a distraction.”

“The summit’s focus on continued reliance on coal is directly counter to the goal of these climate negotiations,” Meyer said in a statement, “which is to dramatically reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Every year countries come together at these negotiations to find a global solution to climate change, and yet our host is embracing a chief cause of the problem.”

Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy on climate change, said at a news conference in Warsaw that the world’s reliance on coal is “not going to change overnight.” But, “high efficiency coal is certainly better than low efficiency coal,” he added, noting that carbon capture and storage technology was “the most important hope” for coal’s future.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide are slowing somewhat from the rapid pace of the past decade, new figures show, but growth in burning coal continues to outstrip the growth in other forms of energy, and experts said the world remains far from meeting international goals on climate change.

The new figures were released late Monday by the Global Carbon Project, which tracks emissions. They showed that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and the production of concrete rose by 2.1 percent in 2012, compared with 2011, and they are projected to rise by a similar amount in 2013. Since 2000, growth in such emissions had been running more than 3 percent a year, on average.

Scientists said that more aggressive climate policies in some countries may have played some role in the slowdown. Emissions are falling in the United States, thanks partly to an abundance of natural gas and to tougher mileage standards for new cars. They are also falling in Europe, where a weak economy has reduced demand for power.

Yet on a global scale, the continuing expansion of coal, the dirtiest form of fossil energy and the one associated with the highest emissions of greenhouse gases, is far outstripping the growth of renewables and other low-carbon sources of power.

“Coal is king, still,” said Glen Peters, a researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, and a leader of the group that produced the new analysis.

Figueres reminded the execs the 195 members of the U.N. climate treaty agreed in 2010 to hold the rise in global temps to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from preindustrial levels, and she said continuing along the current path would make reaching that target impossible.

At the 19th meeting of the U.N. climate conference in Warsaw this week, negotiations are under way toward a new global climate treaty intended to limit emissions, but it is not even supposed to take effect until 2020, and no deal is assured.

Delegates to the U.N. conference began meeting here last week to chart the road toward a global agreement, planned for a 2015 meeting in Paris, to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which technically expired last year.

In a departure from recent climate meetings, the Americans are not being portrayed as among the chief villains, in part because President Obama appears sincerely committed to reining in greenhouse gases and helping poorer countries adapt. Environmentalists’ wrath is now more directed at Japan and Australia, which are seen as backtracking on earlier climate-friendly policies.

Japan on Friday retreated from its previous emissions target, saying that the loss of its nuclear- power base in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe had caused it to revise its outlook.

Australia, meanwhile, has taken an increasingly cool approach to the question of global warming.

“All the Americans have to do is stand next to the Australians and Japanese, and in the current climate, they appear as the leaders,” said Ria Voorhaar, a spokeswoman for the Climate Action Network, an alliance of environmental organizations.

Separately, in Beijing on Monday, the president of China, Xi Jinping, told former President Clinton that climate-change policy and energy were among the areas where their two countries should cooperate more, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.