Energy policy

Is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

  • 21 Aug 2014, 10:40
  • Simon Evans

Coal prices have halved since 2011 because of China's "anything but coal" power plans and competition from cleaner sources of energy, the Financial Times reports. Prices will probably rebound, but analysts tell the paper the recovery may be slow.

Back home, the UK has a coal problem. Use is up a fifth in four years due in part to low prices and the government has been looking at extending the life of coal plants. German use is up 13 per cent too.

Some are saying the shift to coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, has been at the expense of cleaner gas and nuclear. If it persists it would be a threat to EU plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent in 2030.

So is cheap coal bad news for the climate?

Supply and demand

First, let's take a look at today's coal price and why it has become so cheap.

Coal prices haven't been this low since 2009, as the chart below shows, and have almost halved since a peak in 2011. Over the same period crude oil has remained above the historically unprecedented $100 per barrel level (purple line). So low coal prices aren't being caused by generally weak demand for energy.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 At 16.04.19

A version of this blog was originally published on 23 June.

 

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Unpacking Christopher Booker's wind vs coal comparison

  • 18 Aug 2014, 17:30
  • Simon Evans

UK energy policy is "collapsing", says Christopher Booker, just like the cooling towers of closed coal-fired power station Didcot A in Oxfordshire. It's an arresting image, but is it right?

Booker thinks we should be sticking with cheap coal-fired electricity instead of investing in wind power, despite the large carbon emissions and health impacts from coal-generated air pollution.

Wind versus Didcot A

Booker's recurring theme is that wind power is a poor way to generate electricity, when compared to coal.

In order to rubbish it he presents a comparison with coal power. But it's not easy to understand, and more importantly it may obscure more than it reveals about what's actually going on with power generation in the UK.

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Fracking in the UK - the Carbon Brief summary

  • 15 Aug 2014, 14:30
  • Simon Evans and Mat Hope

Shale gas is normal gas extracted from shale rock using a technique known as fracking - or hydraulic fracturing.

Protests have sprung up in recent years in opposition to what is sometimes perceived as an unsafe practice. Major studies have been conducted to try and answer such fears. But new research is often met with a mixture of scepticism and spin so has done little to dampen the debate.

Negotiating arguments about fracking from the UK can be tricky. Most of the industry's experience is in the US, where regulatory regimes are very different, and evidence of fracking's environmental impact is often contested.

We try to summarise the key questions about shale gas' impacts and, where possible, draw some conclusions.

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