Let them eat coal.

Marie Antoinette famously did not say: “Let them eat cake!” on the eve of the French revolution, although it has been attributed to her as evidence that she failed to appreciate the plight of starving French peasants. Somehow I have been reminded of this callous and ignorant phrase upon hearing of a new PR offensive by the coal industry to “eliminate energy poverty”.

In light of yet more dire predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the scale of disaster climate change is expected to wreak on the world’s poorest people, it is shocking, yet not surprising that the worlds largest coal firm (Peabody) has hired the world’s largest PR firm (Burson-Marsteller) to launch a campaign called “Affordable Energy for Life”.

Calling “global energy poverty the world’s number one human and environmental crisis” the coal industry has launched “a comprehensive global campaign aimed at building awareness and support to eliminate energy poverty, increase access to low-cost electricity and improve emissions through advanced clean coal technologies.”

I would like to say that this is nothing more than a cynical move to resist the tide turning against coal. But in fact, the tide is not turning against coal. According to the International Energy Agency, coal is set to overtake oil as the number source of energy worldwide. This is for two reasons. Firstly, coal is abundant and cheap. Secondly, half the world’s population does not have access to electricity. Most of the growth in electricity generation is driven by coal. Indeed, as Ed Crooks reported in the FT this week, Exxon Mobil expects fossil fuels to be around 75% of global energy in 2040, and while this appears to be consistent with the IEA forecasts, it is not consistent with the staying within the 2degrees of warming target.

We shouldn’t turn our noses up. Old King Coal has served us well. The economics of coal drove the industrial revolution in the west, just as is now happening in China and elsewhere. Unlike previous sources of energy the effort expended in mining and burning coal results in a much greater output of energy released. The progress, prosperity and quality of life many of us enjoy today are thanks to, and still largely powered by, coal. (In the UK, coal contributes up to 40% of our electricity mix).

However, electricity from burning coal comes with a heavy price.

Burning coal generates carbon emissions as well as hazardous pollutants such as mercury, lead, and benzene. The latest IPCC report warns that “the worst is yet to come” with severe climate impacts that will hit the poorest hardest.

The BBC reported last week that one in eight global deaths were linked with air pollution, making it “the world’s largest single environmental health risk“, according to the World Health Organisation. Air pollution caused 7 million deaths worldwide in 2012 alone.

Women and children are disproportionately affected. WHO family, woman and children’s health assistant director-general Dr Flavia Bustreo said“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”

Reducing indoor air pollution by increasing access to electricity is synonymous with prosperity and public good. But electricity generation from coal comes with a long-term payback.

China is good example of the short-term gain in exchange for long-term pain. Rapid growth in coal-fired power stations has given millions of people access to electricity, thereby raising their quality of life, and reducing indoor air pollution. However, the net result is that the air pollution (and associated climate and health risks) has been pushed outdoors into the local environment and wider atmosphere, the smog ultimately causing permanent and lasting damage for millions of people.

The question is this. How can we best respond to the twin challenges for our time: climate change, caused by energy consumption, and poverty, caused by lack of access to energy? Until we recognize that these challenges are mutually dependent, we will never win the battle for hearts and minds.

Having run PR campaigns for a catalogue of world-class villains, from the tobacco industry to Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster, Burson-Marsteller have the perfect track record to push dirty coal to the world’s poorest people. Right now, climate campaigners are pushing solutions (renewables and efficiency) that cannot compete with coal in terms of cost or performance compared to fossil fuels. In the battle between climate and coal, coal is winning because it promises prosperity.

Just this week, Chris Field, co-chairman of the working group of the IPCC called for a more positivity about the opportunities at stake. “If climate change is a total downer because everything looks so serious, and the only ways to cope effectively are to give up all good things in life, it’s going to be really hard to take action.” He said: “If dealing effectively is taking an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial approach, building great businesses and communities, then it’s a problem that we can deal with.”

 Climate campaigners need a new narrative that recognises the rights of half the world to access the electricity we take for granted, whilst being realistic about what it will take to replace the world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure…and then double it.

First published on Business Green.

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