“Coal is a cure for poverty.” In a rejection of a popular argument on the part of the energy industry, World Bank climate change envoy Rachel Kyte has said that the continued extraction of coal has imposed heavy costs on civilians living in the world’s poorest communities.
At an event hosted by The New Republic magazine and the Center for American Progress, Kyte argued that while over a billion people worldwide lack reliable access to energy, coal extraction carries heavy social costs, among which is the loss of breathable air.
“If [poor communities] all had access to coal-fired power tomorrow their respiratory illness rates would go up, etc., etc.,” she said. “We need to extend access to energy to the poor and we need to do it the cleanest way possible because the social costs of coal are uncounted and damaging, just as the global emissions count is damaging as well.”
Such arguments come in response both to the increasing effects of global climate change on impoverished communities and to energy sector arguments that fossil fuel extraction can help alleviate global poverty. In its Advanced Energy for Life campaign, led by the world’s largest private-sector coal company Peabody Energy, the coal industry has argued that “coal is critically required to reduce energy poverty and to help achieve the U.N. development goals.”
But Oxfam International has refuted those claims, arguing that in addition to the more immediate implications of polluted local air and dirty extraction methods, the burning of coal is largely responsible for the acceleration of climate change that is primarily affecting poor, rural communities. In a statement directed at the Australian government – which, under Tony Abbott’s leadership, has abandoned its emissions targets and in 2014 became the first nation to repeal its carbon tax – Oxfam Australia argued that the proliferation of coal extraction runs contrary to the interests of civilians living in poor and developing countries.
“Even for rapidly growing urban populations, the past advantages of coal are diminishing as the cost of renewable energy falls and the harmful effects of coal become more and more evident,” reads the report, entitled Powering Up Against Poverty: Why Renewable Energy is the Future. “Burning coal poses significant health risks through air pollution – a major driver of China’s shift away from coal – and is leading to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths around the world.”
The report notes that the construction of coal mines is displacing many in the world’s poor communities and that extraction often leaves rural civilians without access to clean water and affordable land. Most importantly, the report notes, burning coal is the largest contributor to climate change, and “as such, it is creating havoc for many of the world’s poorest people, who are already feeling the impacts of climate change through decreased crop yields, increased risk of disasters and loss of land.”
Though the mining industry has channeled a huge amount of effort into convincing governments of the benefits of coal mining for poor communities, organizations in such communities have refuted those claims. In response to a claim made by conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs that increasing the supply of Australian coal to India would provide access to energy for 82 million people, Sirinivas Krishnaswamy, CEO of the Vasudha Foundation, said that those arguments “simply do not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny.”
In order to relieve poor communities around the world of the troubles perpetuated by the burning of fossil fuels, governments will need to resist the convenience and influence of already-established industries like coal. Moreover, they ought to embrace projects like the Lake Turkana Wind Farm, which, with subsidies from the Kenyan government, is set to provide the Kenyan people with energy at two-thirds the cost of electricity in the United States. However, until governments like Australia’s resist the influence of vested interests, they will continue to be working against the safety of their own environments, as well as the interests of poor people in developing countries.
– Zach VeShancey