UN warns of dire consequences of coal use

The United Nations' top climate change official warned on Monday that coal is a serious cause of global warming; and most of the world's remaining coal deposits must stay in the ground if greenhouse gas emissions are to be held in check.

Power plant chimneyIn an address to coal industry executives in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change, said they were putting the global climate and their shareholders at risk by failing to support the search for alternative fuels.

"The world is rising to meet the climate challenge as risks of inaction mount, and it is in your best interest to make coal part of the solution," Figueres said.

''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,'' she said at an industry conference that is timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the United Nations climate body, being held in Poland this year. ''But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone's sake.''

Many observers find it strange that the climate meet is being held in Poland, a relatively rich country by global standards that is also one of the most polluting in Europe, with most of its electricity coming from coal.

''While the poor are being pushed hard by rich countries to reduce fossil fuel consumption, a relatively wealthy central European nation – one that has barely cut its emissions in the past 10 years, generates 90 per cent of its electricity from coal, and has single-handedly vetoed the EU proposal to set more ambitious targets to combat climate change – is invited to host talks aimed at cutting fuels,'' says a blog in London's The Guardian newspaper.

Speaking at the World Coal Summit, Figures reminded the executives that the 195 members of the United Nations climate treaty agreed in 2010 to hold the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels, and said that continuing along the current path would make reaching that target impossible.

Ignoring that mandate, she said, poses a ''business continuation risk'' to the coal industry. ''Like any other industry, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your workforce and shareholders,'' she said. ''And by now it is abundantly clear that further capital expenditures on coal can only go ahead if they are compatible with the 2 degree Celsius limit.''

Godfrey G 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.''