Wherever climate and energy negotiations take place, the coal industry wants to have their say. They often succeed. A chapter from the Coal Atlas.
Ever since climate change and the role of fossil fuels in it became a hot topic, the coal industry has intervened in the debate and used its political and economic weight to tip the scales. In the 1990s, global industry came together to combat research on climate change. The biggest private coal firms, collectively known as Big Coal, have been hindering efforts to prevent climate change for decades. The fact that many of the biggest coal companies are state-owned – for example in Poland, the Czech Republic, India and China – has helped brake the progress of reform.
The coal sector often has a seat at the table when political decisions are made. In 2007, when Chancellor Angela Merkel took over the EU presidency and hosted a G8 summit on the Baltic coast, the German government had previously appointed the Swede Lars Göran Josefsson as one of two climate-protection advisors. At the time, Mr Josefsson was the boss of Vattenfall, the largest energy company in the European Union and the owner of lignite power plants in Lusatia, in eastern Germany. He later became an advisor to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
At a climate summit in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, two of the host government’s delegates were representatives of local companies. One came from Eskom, Africa’s largest power producer, and one of the biggest CO2 emitters in the world. The other was from Sasol, the world’s biggest producer of synthetic petrol, a fuel produced by liquefying coal.
Over the years, critical voices such as the Corporate Europe Observatory have watched as companies try to influence international climate negotiations. The energy companies’ tactics range from sponsoring conferences to the formulation of draft agreements. The oil and gas majors are more active than the coal industry in international climate discussions. The coal industry prefers to shape national discourse and legislation because its activities are more strongly affected by policies at this level.
In the EU, the coal lobby has mainly targeted renewable energy. It argues that it is not necessary to fix what proportion renewables must have in the overall energy mix; emissions trading will be enough to determine this. One of the loudest voices in this debate has been Euracoal, the European Association for Coal and Lignite. Lo and behold, the EU’s climate targets for 2030 no longer include binding national targets for the expansion of renewable power or for improving energy efficiency.
Europe’s planned limits for air pollution have also been subject to influence from the coal lobby. The methods are simple: some of the specialists named by member states to the crucial technical working groups are direct representatives of the industry’s interests. The makeup of the Greek delegation was particularly biased. All the delegates worked either for the Public Power Corporation, whose power plants are among the dirtiest in Europe, or for Hellenic Petroleum.
The United States traditionally has a powerful coal lobby. A core element of all its campaigns has been to discredit scientific studies. Since the 1990s, coal companies and industry associations have financed scientists who dispute the findings on global warming - and with success. In 2014, only eight Republicans in the US Congress recognized global warming as scientifically proven; 278 denied it. This reflects the spending patterns of the coal industry which donated $57.5 million to American politicians, 84 percent of them Republicans, between 1990 and 2014.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is one of the more important associations of coal lobbyists in the USA. It campaigns against regulations in the coal sector and climate protection. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is composed of state legislators and financed partly by money from the energy sector, including Big Coal. In 2013/14, it was active in at least 16 states working against renewable energy.
The lobbyists have everything covered: from the drafting of regulations against the supply of privately generated solar power into the grid, to combating the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama’s climate policies. Even schools are included. The Kentucky Coal and Energy Education Project distribute educational materials that are one-sided in their portrayal of the coal industry.
Big Coal is fighting renewable energy in Australia, too. The Conservative government, in power since 2013, has reversed comprehensive laws to protect the climate. In 2014, it turned its attention to the requirement obliging Australian power generators to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable power by 2020. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott called on Dick Warburton, a noted climate-change sceptic, to review the target. The industry ran big advertising campaigns that were supported by media owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose reports repeatedly question the efficiency of renewable energy and the findings of climate science. Sowing the doubts has borne fruit; the 2020 target for expanding renewable energy was reduced from 41,000 to 33,000 gigawatt-hours.
In 2014, Australia invested less money in generating clean electricity than Honduras or Myanmar. A new government directive is even expected to halt Australia’s “green bank”, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, from investing in wind and rooftop solar power because the federal government does not regard them to be emerging technologies.