‘Coal doesn’t benefit the poor’ — quite the opposite. Dan Kammen on energy access and poverty

stone crushers in India

Stone crushers in India Credit: Getty Images.  By Simon Evans

The role of coal in poverty reduction is contentious. The Overseas Development Institute’s recent Beyond Coal report argues that better options are available, namely, that coal has been given too much credit for past progress and that more coal will entrench poverty, not relieve it.

Carbon Brief spoke to Daniel Kammen, one of the contributors to the report, about the findings. Kammen is professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and science envoy for the US State Department.

Kammen explained how the report came about and the clear message it discovered:

“There’s been a series of academic reports analysing, on a cost-benefit basis, how different coal projects around the world, from Kosovo, to Pakistan, to Mongolia, might or might not be cheaper, better, than the renewable energy alternatives. In each case that I’ve studied, the renewables came out better…
“The lessons of these different coal assessments…was a very, very resounding message that the coal projects were essentially always out of date, in terms of how much more or less they would cost. In almost every case we find the coal projects are just more expensive, flat out. And then you get to environmental impacts, you get to social impacts, and the fact that coal doesn’t even deliver the thing for which it’s really been touted for, and that is, bringing people out of poverty because somehow it’s this least-cost fossil fuel source.
“In fact, what we see is that…coal, if anything, has kept people in poverty, because big coal projects in poor countries tend to be projects that favour a few big industry customers. They don’t really actually affect and benefit the poor.”

Kammen pushed back against those that argue coal is the solution to extreme poverty in Africa:

“I really cringe a bit when I see people touting mega fossil fuel projects as the obvious, first thing to look at…Distributed clean energy, time and time again today, has proven to be better, cheaper, more socially and environmentally positive.
“I really feel that, unless it’s a totally unique case – and I don’t really know of any right now – the clean is beating the coal, except for some backwards looking analysts that are looking at what was the economics of renewables a decade ago. Today, it’s a different story.”

Kammen also explained why fossil fuel plants must respond to the Paris Agreement on climate change:

“At the point in the century we’re going to need to move beyond tried-and-true, because most of the countries of the world have made really quite significant pledges around the Paris climate agreement.
“Any fossil fuel plant built today is going to have to be under a totally different economic regime. Coal plants basically don’t pencil out at all. Gas plants that you build in 2016, 2017, the builder would have to be willing to retire it in just a couple of decades, to stay under the pledges that countries are making.”

You can watch the full interview, below.

Daniel Kammen is professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, co-director of theBerkeley Institute of the Environment, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, and serves on the Advisory Committee for Energy & Environment for the X-Prize Foundation. In February 2016 he was appointed as science envoy for the US State Department.



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