Record temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius have put Western Europe on alert. Spain was rocked by the story of José Antonio González, a 60-year-old street sweeper who died on the streets of Madrid after extreme heat. High temperatures in the country have killed more than 500 people and burned 70,000 hectares so far this year, double the average for the past decade. Emergencies also occurred in Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece. The devastating manifestation of climate change comes at the same time that the European Union is considering relaxing emissions controls by using more polluting fuels like coal to meet gas shortages caused by the war in Ukraine. The focus is on Colombia, one of the main exporters of the mineral.
The switch to using such sources has already become official in Germany, where cutbacks in Russian gas exports forced an unexpected decision: the reactivation of coal-fired power generation, a setback to the goal of phasing out that fuel by 2030. Holland and Austria will also return to the energy that is considered the most polluting of all. The European Union’s plan envisages a further deterioration in the gas supply or even a complete cut for the coming winter. The aim is to reduce consumption by 15% between August 1st and March 31st, 2023. Precisely in August, the ban on Russian coal imports to the organization’s countries will come into force as one of the sanctions against Russia.
“Colombia has over 50 years of high calorific value, low sulfur coal reserves. It is a coal of the highest quality, sought after on the international market,” stressed the Minister of Mines and Energy, Diego Mesa, at the launch of the mining round in April. As part of the process, two areas totaling more than 9,000 hectares will be allocated for the exploitation of thermal coal in the department of Cesar in the north of the country.
Coal is the mineral that contributes the most to the national economy. It is the second largest export product (only 8% is for domestic consumption), accounts for more than 80% of mining royalties and provides more than 130,000 jobs. The main producers are the departments of La Guajira and Cesar, located on the Caribbean coast. Paradoxically, both levels register multidimensional poverty that is above the national average. Countries like Germany and Poland have expressed an interest in increased exports from Colombia.
President-elect Gustavo Petro has declared himself a champion of an “economy for life” that protects water and air. Although he rules out the closure of producing coal mines, he warns that the country must prepare for a change in the world scenario over the next 10 years. “Now is the time to abandon the fossil fuel economy, distance ourselves from oil, coal and gas and build development on the basis of production and knowledge,” he said in an interview with EL PAÍS after his election.
During a visit to a mine in Paipa (Boyacá) before the presidential election, he assured the miners that their work was not in jeopardy. “What needs to be done is a model where the miners own the electric power,” he told them. “The energy transition will take place gradually, the state will buy coal because it is running out worldwide, and it will train miners in new energies,” said the designated Environment Minister Susana Muhamad at the time. It is still unclear how a possible purchase of coal by the government is to be financed. What the next president explained is that fossil fuel revenues would gradually be replaced by tourism and rural reactivation.
The possible expansion of coal mines or new investments, which in turn increase exports, is also not entirely clear. “It will be crucial to get a clear message from the new government on coal mining. Investments in mining are long-term, so uncertainty in these processes does not help,” affirms the Colombian Mining Association (ACM). “A roadmap needs to be put in place that gives investors certainty and allows them to use the current situation to translate it into more taxes, levies and employment,” the union said.
The environmental impact
According to the UN, Russia’s war in Ukraine has not only caused the deaths of more than 5,000 civilians, the largest human migration since World War II, worsening poverty and a global increase in the cost of living and food. It also reverses the progress the European Union has made so far in reducing carbon emissions, a target set at 55% by 2030.
“Displacing the gas means emitting twice as many tons of carbon dioxide. For every gigawatt hour of energy produced with gas, 490 tons are produced, while with coal it increases to 820 tons. Thermal coal is the most polluting form of energy there is,” explains Camilo Prieto, Professor of Climate Change at Javeriana University in Bogotá.
Although most of the coal produced in Colombia is exported, Prieto, 45, believes that “the coal that is burned in Germany, China or anywhere else in the world affects us all. The minimum responsibility that the country should have is that it is taxed with the carbon tax.” Companies in the sector are currently exempt from this tax. For its part, the mining companies’ union claims that “the goal is to implement more and more carbon capture technologies to help reduce emissions without compromising energy security”.
In addition to accelerating global warming, the use of coal affects air pollution, one of the biggest environmental risks to human health. It is the cause of seven million premature deaths each year, estimates the World Health Organization. In Colombia, there is progress in the energy transition to reduce sources such as coal. The installed capacity of solar and wind energy has increased twenty-fold since 2018 and its share in the electricity matrix has increased from 1% to 6%. In Europe, renewable energy has surpassed generation from fossil fuels for the first time in 2020.
The future of coal requires analysis from multiple angles: the mineral’s current contribution to the economy, job creation and support for energy supplies, the European urgency to replace gas flow with other fuels, and the urgent need to mitigate climate change to contribute . A discussion that experts say can be lengthy and high-temperature.
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