Its name is coal

© Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The most polluting of all fossil fuels is making a big comeback in the 21st century. The overcoming of the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the resulting disorder in the energy markets – everything seems to benefit coal. The year 2022 has seen more coal extracted, traded and consumed than ever before. It’s a boon for Switzerland‘s economy, but a disaster for the climate.

Im Gegensatz zum schmierigen Cousin Erdöl ist Kohle nicht besonders glamourös. Der Rohstoff erinnert weder an die grossen Vermögen, die auf Petrodollar gebaut wurden, noch an die geopolitischen Intrigen, sondern an die Schattenseiten der industriellen Revolution. Dennoch wurde die Kohle nicht in die Geschichtsbücher verbannt. Im Gegenteil: Noch nie wurde so viel Kohle abgebaut, transportiert und verbraucht wie im Jahr 2022, in dem die Produktion die symbolische Marke von 8 Milliarden Tonnen überschreiten dürfte. Das sind 72% mehr als zu Beginn des neuen Jahrtausends. Dies veranlasst den französischen Wissenschaftshistoriker Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in seinem Vortrag «Une histoire politique du CO₂» zu der Aussage: «Es hat nie eine Energiewende gegeben.»

In contrast to its cousin, oil, coal seems devoid of any glamour. It evokes neither images of great petro-dollar wealth nor geopolitical intrigue, but rather the powerhouse of the industrial revolution. However, coal has not been relegated to the history books. The mineral has never been extracted, transported and consumed as much as in 2022. This year, production is set to exceed the symbolic threshold of 8 billion tonnes – 72 percent more than at the turn of the century, leading French science historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz to say that “there has never been an energy transition” during his conference “A political history of CO2”.

Demographic growth, increasing electrification and the disruptions in energy markets mean King Coal has a bright future. By financialising and internationalising its market, Switzerland has once again played the game cleverly – welcoming the headquarters of large mining companies since the start of the 2000s and giving rise to a veritable ecosystem of soot, from Zug to Geneva and Lugano.

“Why would we deprive ourselves of it? Coal is the cheapest fossil fuel and the most abundant on earth; it’s essential if we are to lift a quarter of humanity out of energy poverty” says a trader. He agreed to discuss his profession with Public Eye for this report, which took a year to research. This development-centric argument repeatedly comes up in the sector. It cannot be dismissed out of hand. The challenge of electrifying part of the African continent and the countries of South Asia remains a fundamental aspect of the fight against economic stagnation.

However, one must face the facts – today, coal remains the commodity with the worst pollution-to-energy produced ratio. It’s responsible for 40 percent of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), and is the most polluting substance on earth.

It’s up to low- and middle-income countries to avoid falling into the same traps as Europe did in linking their long-term prospects to soot by investing in new coal-fired power stations. It may be easy to extract and relatively cheap, but the negative aspects are unquantifiable and, most of the time, ignored by the coal proponents. States like Switzerland, which have advocated for a global coal phase-out at the 2021 climate change conference in Glasgow, have their share of responsibility too.

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