Last week, Bryony, Sandbag's founder, spoke at Poland’s controversial International Coal and Climate conference, held incongruously alongside Warsaw’s hosting of the UNFCCC’s annual Conference of Parties. Bryony's message was clear: The coal industry had to wake up to the challenges facing it or risk its future market share being decimated by cleaner alternatives.Cough for Coal 350org protest

Coal's last cough: Protests in Warsaw. Credit: www.350.org

Why is coal in such a position? It is uniquely polluting, at an approximate average of 1000 grams of CO2 per kWh, compared to 450g CO2/kWh for gas. In the EU, with an 80% cut in emissions planned by 2050, it becomes obvious that constraining coal plants or capturing their emissions are the only options. Bryony reminded the conference that the IPCC’s new report outlines a ‘safe’ (under 2C increase) carbon budget of one trillion tonnes; over half that has already been emitted. This global budget is predicted to be exhausted before 2040, and coal will chew through at the fastest rate.

As Bryony told the delegates, the EU has already has a net loss of 13GW of coal capacity since 2010, with more to come as the EU Industrial Emissions Directive bites. Other countries have even tougher regulations on the health and climate effects of coal; with 22,000 deaths a year from coal in the EU, and more deaths in Poland from air pollution than traffic accidents, regulations are only going to get tighter.

But the industry has been in denial seeking to block climate progress rather than lobby for support for the solution it needs in order to be able to reduce emissions: CCS.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a technology that has long languished unfunded, but with more than a third of the world’s primary energy currently sourced from coal, CCS offers the coal industry a future, if it can be commercialised. In Europe, a decade has been lost with demonstration projects failing to materialise. In that time renewables and energy efficiency have become mainstream and are now eating into the thermal power market. While Europe dithers, in other parts of the world CCS is progressing. More than half of last year’s new CCS projects originated in China.

The World Coal Organisation wants to rely upon “high-efficiency” (40% efficiency) coal plants, but this is too little, too late. Coal is so toxic in air pollution, and so bad for the climate, that only a dramatic cleanup is acceptable; in reality it is CCS or nothing. Even in industrial applications where CCS has the most likely market, other technologies, including high temperature modular nuclear reactors, could overtake.

Bryony’s speech ended recalling a trip to a coal fired power station in the UK where the operators, in order to be able to turn up to do their job, chose not to believe in climate change. She suggested to any with similar attitudes in the audience that science and the laws of physics did not really care what they told themselves to be able to sleep at night and that the coal industry could not afford to ignore the reality.

Read more, including Christiana Figueres speech at the coal summit, here