Fossil fuel industry talks the modern talk, but dig a little deeper and they’re still stuck in the Stone Age

The energy system’s broken but our governments aren’t up to the challenge

If the UK receiving a month’s rain in a day wasn’t enough – or the unbelievable speed the Arctic’s melting – a new report released this week shows that climate change is already here: it’s already costing the world $1.2 trillion a year (the combined GDP of Norway, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates), and is set to get far worse. As the recent 6 Billion Ways film night showed, it’s because vested corporate interests are keeping us hooked on dirty fossil fuels while they rake in billions. The film night also showed how the very same energy system is failing billions across the world who continue to live in energy poverty. If we’re to fix our broken energy system, tackling climate change and energy poverty, then we need fair, ambitious action from world governments. But the last big chance we had – this summer’s UN Sustainable Development Conference, aka Rio+20, didn’t deliver. Friends of the Earth’s analysis shows how bad the deal was for people and the planet, and a follow-up blog from the World Coal Association (WCA) surprisingly agreed – or is that a sheepskin coat you’re wearing, Mr Wolf?


If it seems unbelievable, it probably is

My gut tells me anything the WCA sees as good must be bad, but reading the blog I found them calling for global action on energy poverty – echoing Friends of the Earth. Over a billion people are without access to electricity, with another billion unable to afford it or with no reliable connection. Almost 3 billion rely on polluting fuels like coal and wood for cooking and heating, with serious health impacts particularly among women and young children. So the WCA wants to tackle this?


The devil is in the detail: what WCA means when it talks about energy access is ramping up coal-fired power stations. The name’s a bit of a give away. Its members include some of the biggest, most polluting fossil fuel companies in the world like Rio Tinto, Xstrata, BHP Billiton and Glencore. Coal is their bread and butter, and if energy access can justify building more coal plants, well then great. Except it doesn’t deliver energy access – quite the opposite – and we desperately need to stop burning fossil fuels if we’re going to prevent catastrophic climate change.


King Coal can’t deliver for people or the planet

Unlike Friends of the Earth, WCA’s Chief Executive, Milton Catelin (ex-climate change advisor to Tony Blair!) welcomes the Rio+20 Outcome for keeping fossil fuels on the table and its “recognition that renewable energy sources are not the only path to achieving global energy access objectives.” He also calls for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s flag ship initiative, Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), to recognise the importance of coal in delivering access. But what exactly are those claims based on?


It might sound logical that more power stations – coal or not – will lead to more people accessing electricity, but it doesn’t work like that in many countries in the global South. In India more than 400m people have no electricity access and the aggressive building of coal-fired power plants has not tackled this: the East of India, with the highest number of plants, also has the lowest levels of village electrification – the electricity is sent to the richer urban centres and heavy industry. And the myth that coal is cheap an abundant is now finally being allayed as volatile commodity prices show. Contrast that against the falling cost of renewables and the addiction to coal sounds criminal. Ironically, while energy access officially justified building a giant coal-fired power station in South Africa, the Medupi plant will actually reduce energy access as the loans to build it will be paid back through increases on already unaffordable electricity bills, leading to even more people being cut-off.


The danger of talking our talk

The WCA represents a growing trend of the fossil fuel industry to paint itself as champions of sustainable development. Coal company Peabody Energy talks of ‘energy access for all with green coal’; the shale gas industry touts itself as the low carbon solution we’re waiting for, despite the International Energy Agency showing that exploiting it will cook the planet.


The fossil fuel industry is tricking us with this language into accepting the same false solutions that got us into this mess in the first place. There’s a reason the world is facing multiple crises, and that’s because business as usual has been a disaster for this planet and the majority of people in it. We can’t let them do it again. We need new models that can deliver.


Walking the walk

For energy access, breaking from business as usual means moving away from traditional grids. While they’re important, they’ve failed to deliver for the world’s poor. We need to accept that of those without access to electricity in Sub Saharan Africa, 70% are off-grid in remote or rural areas. The grid will never reach, and renewable technologies like solar PV or micro-hydro are often the cheapest and most effective electricity sources. Local energy projects can create local employment and technical skills, while access to energy is itself a great catalyser for development, powering water pumps, small-scale irrigation or small businesses, as well as helping the realisation of basic rights like education and health care.


Putting communities at the heart of clean energy access has been a great success in places like Brazil, Nepal or Indonesia. In Indonesia, Ashden Award winner IBEKA (who featured in our film night) is helping communities set up and run their own micro-hydro plants, transforming the lives of local residents. Renewable energy cooperatives can put people and the planet first.


Walk the walk or we’ll stop your talk

So I do agree with the WCA on one thing: we need global action on energy poverty. But we have to make sure we adopt the right models and right policies, guiding investment towards real, not false solutions. Renewables over coal, decentralised over centralised, communities over large corporations. Big corporate fossil fuel interests will keep talking the language of sustainability and it’s down to all of us to call them out, to call a pig in lipstick a pig, and to demand that our politicians stop listening to dirty industry and start putting us and the planet first.


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