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Net zero emissions

In the crosswinds of coal’s clean transition

by Michelle Manook, CEO of the World Coal Association

May 26, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

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The recent announcement by President Moon Jae-in that South Korea will stop funding coal-powered plants overseas and expand its decision to phase out coal “at home” comes at a significant time for the world’s coal industry.

Clearly, the industry is caught in crosswinds of disparity as developed countries, of which South Korea is one, are committing to limit coal’s expansion, at the same time as developing countries, such as India and Indonesia, continue to deploy coal as a means of delivering power to the 770 million people who do not have it.

It is the dichotomy of our times.

A clean coal conversation

Against this backdrop, the World Coal Association which I lead has started a new conversation about the role which clean coal technologies must play in delivering a sustainable, net-zero emissions future.

That statement alone says a lot about the journey we are on.

On the one hand, the Association I represent, along with the best climate science, maintains that clean coal technologies – being any mitigation mechanism which removes CO2 emissions at its source - are crucial to meeting Paris climate change targets.

On the other, coal remains essential for sustainable development in countries which still need coal to modernise and provide people with basic human rights – fuel for heating, lighting, transport and other essential services, along with economic growth.

This is the dilemma. Does the world make decisions based on the desire of several developed countries to extinguish coal in the fastest possible timeframe? Or does it try and balance the complexities associated with balancing desire with demand - and in many cases, absolute need?

Coal is literally a “building block” to industrialisation – 90 per cent of the world’s cement relies on coal, and 70 per cent of global steel. More than 60 per cent of energy used to make aluminium comes from coal.

But the most important point to make is that clean technologies are already here.

Clean coal technologies are here

There are more than half a dozen clean coal technologies in existence today. These include High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE), Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Coal-to-Hydrogen.

CCS technology captures CO2 at the coal plant and transports it via pipelines before injecting it into an underground storage facility (porous rock which absorbs the CO2 like a sponge).

According to forecasts by the International Energy Agency (IEA), CCS is expected to contribute fourteen per cent of cumulative CO2 reduction by 2060. CCS is already in commercial operation across 26 facilities around the world and a further 65 commercial CCS facilities are in various stages of global development.

The other clean coal technology in rapid deployment is Coal-to-Hydrogen. Again, through a simple chemical process, coal is converted to hydrogen and the CO2 is trapped and disposed of through a CCS process. The Australian and Japanese governments are in a hydrogen partnership which is turning Victorian brown coal into clean hydrogen which is being exported to Japan.

Many other Coal-to-Hydrogen projects are in operation.

South Korea’s clean technology embrace

These technologies are also being deployed in South Korea. South Korea’s Doosan Group is already an established supplier of clean coal technology for countries such as Indonesia.  

Last week (May 11), the Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) announced that its depleting Donghae gas field will close next year (2022). It will put its pipeline to the port of Ulsan into reverse and create the country’s first major carbon-capture reservoir by injecting carbon dioxide into sedimentary rock below the seabed.

This proposal would store 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually for 30 years from 2025, making it one of the biggest CCS projects in the world.

Similarly, South Korea’s largest steel maker, POSCO, is supporting the Korean government’s policy of achieving “2050 carbon neutrality” through its own efforts to leverage Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) and hydrogen-based steelmaking.

These efforts are to be applauded and we endorse them as much as we do renewables. Everything is needed and everything should co-exist.

The missing ingredients: Support and investment

The challenge now is to give these clean coal innovations the support and investment they need so they can play their part in a decarbonised future.

We need governments (such as South Korea), industry (like Doosan, KNOC and POSCO) and financial institutions (Shinhan Financial, KB Financial, Woori Bank, Korea Development Bank, and others), to fall in behind these clean technologies and allow them the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Clean technologies such as CCS have been endorsed by International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), so there is no reason why they should not be widely deployed.

In navigating our climate transition, no solution is going to be easy. All technologies have their strengths and limitations which is why we need collaboration.

South Korea has approximately 60 operating coal plants generating about forty percent of the country's electricity.

Respecting rights

President Moon Jae-In placed a moratorium on construction of any new coal-fired power plants when he took office in 2017 and shuttered plants which were more than 30 years old.

We support any country’s right to make decisions that are in their best interests.

We are not advocating that old plants be kept operating if there is no economic and environmental reason to do so. Instead, we advocate that clean coal technologies be considered part of the solution by ensuring that new plants deploy the best available clean technologies.

As the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted in its just-released report, Net Zero by 2050, countries need to be able to make their own sensible and realistic assessment about the energy needs which balance affordability, reliability and the environment.

The focus should now be on “phasing in” clean technologies and supporting countries to reach Paris climate change goals in their own individual ways.  

In the crosswinds of coal’s clean transition

Michelle Manook is Chief Executive of the World Coal Association. She has held the role since July 2019, based in London. She is passionate about coal’s role in powering sustainable economic development, and how this can transform the lives and livelihoods of our global communities. 

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Comment 1
  • Kim Yung-jog

    2021-06-04 01:55:27 (Gmt+09:00)

    Okay work for use with the day please