HANOI, Vietnam – Coal, the fuel that powered the industrial age, has led the planet to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
Scientists have repeatedly warned of its looming dangers, most recently Friday, when a major scientific report issued by 13 U.S. government agencies concluded that the damage from climate change could knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the U.S. economy by century’s end if significant steps aren’t taken to rein in warming.
Internationally, an October report from the U.N. scientific panel on global warming recommended getting out of coal, and fast.
And yet three years after the Paris Agreement, when world leaders promised action, coal shows no sign of disappearing. While coal use is certain to eventually wane worldwide, it is not on track to happen anywhere fast enough to avert the worst effects of climate change, according to the latest assessment by the International Energy Agency. Last year, in fact, global production and consumption increased after two years of decline.
Cheap, plentiful and the most polluting of fossil fuels, coal remains the single largest source of energy to generate electricity worldwide. This, even as renewables like solar and wind power are rapidly becoming more affordable. Soon, coal could make no financial sense for its backers.
Why is coal so hard to quit?
Because coal is a powerful incumbent. It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity — and retain their own power.
And even while renewables are spreading fast, they still have limits: Wind and solar power flow when the breeze blows and the sun shines, and that requires traditional electricity grids to be retooled.
“The main reason why coal sticks around is, we built it already,” said Rohit Chandra, who did his doctorate in energy policy at Harvard, specializing in coal in India.
The battle over the future of coal is being waged in Asia.
Home to half the world’s population, Asia accounts for three-fourths of global coal consumption today. More important, it accounts for more than three-fourths of coal plants either under construction or in the planning stages — a whopping 1,200 of them, according to Urgewald, a German advocacy group that tracks coal development. Heffa Schücking, who heads Urgewald, called those plants “an assault on the Paris goals.”
Indonesia is digging more coal. Vietnam is clearing ground for new coal-fired power plants. Japan, reeling from 2011 nuclear plant disaster, has resurrected coal.
The world’s juggernaut, though, is China. The country consumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 million Chinese are employed in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. “I had to do the calculation three times,” said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.”
Spurred by public outcry over air pollution, China is now also the world leader in solar and wind power installation, and its central government has tried to slow down coal plant construction. But an analysis by Coal Swarm, a U.S.-based team of researchers that advocates for coal alternatives, concluded that new plants continue to be built, and other proposed projects have simply been delayed rather than stopped. Chinese coal consumption grew in 2017, though at a far slower pace than before, and is on track to grow again in 2018, after declining in previous years.
China’s coal industry is now scrambling to find new markets, from Kenya to Pakistan. Chinese companies are building coal plants in 17 countries, according to Urgewald. Its regional rival, Japan, is in the game, too: Nearly 60 percent of planned coal projects developed by Japanese companies are outside the country, mostly financed by Japanese banks.
That contest is particularly stark in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s last frontiers of coal expansion.
Nguy Thi Khanh has seen the contest close-up in Vietnam. Born in 1976, a year after the end of the war, she remembers doing homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. In her northern village, the electricity failed several hours a day. When it rained, there was no power at all. When it did come, it came from a coal plant not far away. When her mother hung laundry to dry, ash settled on the clothes.
Today, pretty much every household in Vietnam, population 95 million, has electricity. Hanoi, the capital, where Nguy now lives, is in a frenzy of new construction, with soaring demand for cement and steel — both energy guzzlers. The economy is galloping. And, up and down the coast, 994 miles in length, foreign companies, mainly from Japan and China, are building coal plants.
One such project is in Nghi Son, a onetime fishing village south of Hanoi and now home to a sprawling industrial zone. The first power plant opened here in 2013. Japan’s overseas aid organization, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, paid for it. The Japanese trading house Marubeni developed it.
A second coal-fired power plant, far bigger, is under construction next door. Marubeni is building that too, along with a Korean company. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation, an export credit agency meant to lower financial risk for private lenders, is helping to fund it.
Coal accounts for 36 percent of the country’s power generation capacity; it is projected to grow to 42 percent by 2030, according to the government. To feed those plants, Vietnam will need to import 90 million tons of coal by 2030.
In the shadow of the smokestack, Nguyen Thi Thu Thien was drying shrimp on the side of the road and complaining bitterly. She had moved out of her house after the power plant built an ash pond right in front. “The coal dust has blackened my house,” she spat. “Even the trees are dying. We can’t live there.”