New Report From Anti-Poverty Group Debunks Claim That Coal Is Good For Poor People

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Perry

An island neighbor of Australia, Vanuatu, was devastated by a cyclone earlier this year. Australian PM Tony Abbott has tried to argue that increasing coal is good for the world's poorest nations.

The coal industry and its supporters often argue that coal is still a relevant energy source because it’s cheap, and cheap electricity reduces energy poverty.

But on Tuesday, Oxfam Australia directed an entire report to Australia’s government, saying that for the one billion people living without electricity, coal is more expensive than renewable energy sources.

“Renewable energy is a cheaper, quicker, and healthier way to increase energy access,” the report states. “Coal is ill-suited to meeting the needs of the majority of the people living without electricity.”

Despite the coal industry’s contention, the cost of infrastructure, fuel, and maintenance makes coal a more expensive way to bring power to developing nations than installing wind or solar — even without considering the health and environmental effects.

The report, from a branch of one of the oldest and most-respected development organizations, also found that using coal hurts people living in poverty by exacerbating climate change and polluting the air. Through case studies, the report shows the benefits of renewable energy development around the world, including in South America, India, and China. Saying Australia is being left behind on this important transformation, the group urged the government to move both its domestic and international policies toward renewable energy.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Australian government has exhibited climate denialism and pro-coal policies.

Last fall, Abbott called coal “good for humanity” at an event for a new coal mine. “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world,” he said.

He was echoing an industry narrative that says coal helps people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford electricity. The coal industry has even launched a campaign to promote the message that coal helps lift people out of poverty.

“In developing countries, far too many people live without light or heat for their homes or access to life-saving medical technologies. And in developed nations, too many people are being forced to choose between paying power bills and buying prescriptions or food,” Advanced Energy for Life, funded by coal giant Peabody, says.

This theory has been roundly criticized. And, in fact, pro-renewable and efficiency programs have been shown to decrease electricity bills in developed nations. Across the globe, 85 percent of people who live without electricity are located in rural areas. For many people, microgrids, not giant power plants, represent the most economical, efficient, and clean way to turn the lights on, according to the International Energy Agency.

Of course, no report on coal and poverty would be complete without recognizing not only coal’s impacts on climate change, but also climate change’s out-sized impact on the global poor.

“Burning coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change. As such, it is creating havoc for many of the world’s poorest people,” Oxfam Australia writes in the report.

The group points out that extreme weather, including heat, floods, droughts, and cyclones, affect vulnerable communities in particular. In addition, coal pollution is thought to cause more than 100,000 premature death each year in India alone, Oxfam reported.

“Increasing coal consumption is incompatible with protecting the rights and interests of poor communities in developing countries,” the report concludes.

The part of the report that addresses climate change might not worry Abbott. The prime minister has been outspoken in his rejection of the science of climate change, and he has implemented the policies to prove it. In 2014, Australia became the first nation to repeal a carbon tax. Abbott’s government has also killed the government-funded climate change commission, abandoned emissions targets, and directed a public university to hire a climate denier to head a “climate consensus center.”

During the last election, when Liberal (what Americans would call Conservative) Abbott took the reins after six years of Labour leadership, the country’s economy had suffered huge setbacks. The global slowdown in 2008 opened the doors to Abbott’s 2013 win. In 2013, Australia was exporting 300 million tons of coal, three times as much as it was 25 years prior.

So despite the broad support from Australia’s public for renewable energy, Australia’s overall emissions were — and are — quite high.

“The greenhouse emissions from our coal exports nullify any planned emission reductions within Australia, many times over,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time.