Going beyond Numbers: Energy Poverty and Coal
Krizna Gomez September 8, 2015
A few months ago, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, Peabody Energy, launched a campaign called “Advanced Energy for Life.” The campaign supposedly rallies the world against the “world’s number one human and environmental crisis”—energy poverty, defined as the lack of access to modern energy services. According to Peabody, with its advertisements bannering the faces of hapless children in impoverished parts of the world, coal is our only hope to end this crisis.
As expected, scientists and anti-climate change activists have been responding with swift rigor to debunk Peabody’s claims. Carbon Tracker, a group of financial, energy and legal experts, released a report that states that energy access is a rural problem, which coal is unable to respond to given the high costs of electrical grid infrastructure to reach such areas. Moreover, only 7% of Africa’s poor are in countries capable of producing coal, meaning that most of those living in energy poverty in the continent will not be benefited by coal development. Finally, given the health effects of coal and that that those living in poverty are the most disproportionately affected by climate change primarily contributed to by coal’s carbon emissions, the costs are outweighed by whatever economic benefit coal brings. As an emblematic example, India’s coal regions are some of the poorest and have the worst energy access. Stanford University has also estimated the social cost of carbon (of which coal is the highest emitter) at USD 220/ton. In overall terms, it was estimated that in 2007, worldwide externalized costs of coal was at USD 450 billion, while the economic value of coal that year was only USD 210 billion.
To save its hide, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity claimed in a study that the social cost of carbon is little compared to the enormous benefits of carbon dioxide emission into the atmosphere. Obama’s science is flawed, the study claims, and it fails to recognize “the centuries of knowledge that prove that carbon emission is good for humanity,” which to them is demonstrated by “a strong causal relationship between world GDP and CO2 emissions over the past two centuries.” Seemingly confusing correlation with causality, they conclude that our past, present and future therefore lies in how much we burn coal.
What baffles me is not the clear business bias and almost laughable “science” that these coal advocates have, but the fact that on both sides of the debate, there has been a failure to discuss an important aspect of the situation—not of energy poverty but of poverty at its core, and not of economics but of human rights.
Even the proponents of the social cost of carbon recognize the measure’s limits due to its inability to consider other relevant factors that are difficult to quantify, which can include human rights impacts. How does one put a dollar value to the number of families displaced by land grabs for coal mines, the deaths caused by paramilitaries which were allegedly hired by a coal company in Colombia, or the deprivation of traditional livelihoods of indigenous communities who are now forced to live in urban matchboxes? In La Guajira in Colombia, where one of the world’s largest open pit coal mines is located, I saw the stark poverty of the indigenous Wayuu communities who now spend their days looking at the mine sitting right next to their territory. Who is counting them?
This is not to say that the efforts of scientists and financial experts to quantify the damage of coal is not laudable, as often, (mock) science is best met by (real) science, but a single-minded focus on such numbers without giving similar regard to other important aspects is preventing a more holistic campaign that can potentially end coal. This is not an issue of energy poverty only, but more holistically, one of quality of life characterized by opportunities for education, the ability to preserve traditional livelihoods, the right to clean and sufficient water, freedom of association and respect of the right to free, prior and informed consent before a coal operation is allowed, and the physical security of those who decide to oppose such mining projects. How many dollars is that worth? Approached in this manner, there is no way that Peabody Energy and their fellow coal companies can mount any numbers game combined with a melodramatic campaign instrumentalizing the face of Global South poverty.
Those contradicting the coal lobby must indeed beat the latter in their own game, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be cornered into a numbers debate (especially given how resourceful the coal lobby is in soliciting the expertise of “renowned” experts for its cause). A significant shortcoming of numbers is that it often reduces human situations into medians, and fails to look at a situation where the rights of every individual, regardless of overall trends, are respected. The campaign against coal is best approached in a multi-disciplinary, multi-framework approach that combines science, economics, and yes, the issue of enforceable rights. This is why the movement towards including a human rights framework at the upcoming Paris Conference of Parties (COP) is an encouraging development. Turning our backs on coal and embracing renewables is not only a matter of well-being that needs to be justified by numbers or science—it is most simply, a matter of right.