While all fossil fuels are contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coal stands apart as really problematic, not just because of its CO2 emissions today (see chart, global emissions in millions of tonnes CO2 vs. time), but because of the vast reserves waiting to be used and the tendency for an emerging economy to lock its energy system into it.

Global energy emissions

Global emissions, million tonnes CO2 from 1971 to 2010

I recently came across data relating to the potential coal resource base in just one country, Botswana, which is estimated at some 200 billion tonnes. Current recoverable reserves are of course a fraction of this amount, but just for some perspective, 200 billion tonnes of coal once used would add well over 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and therefore shift the cumulative total from the current 580 billion tonnes carbon to nearly 700 billion tonnes carbon; and that is just from Botswana. Fortunately Botswana has quite a small population and a relatively high GDP per capita so it is unlikely to use vast amounts of this coal for itself, but its emerging neighbours, countries like Zimbabwe, may certainly benefit. This much coal would also take a very long time to extract – even on a global basis it represents over 25 years of use at current levels of production.

This raises the question of whether a country can develop without an accessible resource base of some description, but particularly an energy resource base. A few have done so, notably Japan and perhaps the Netherlands, but many economies have developed by themselves on the back of coal or developed when others arrived and extracted more difficult resources for them, notably oil, gas and minerals. The coal examples are numerous, but start with the likes of Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Australia and include more recent examples such as China, South Africa and India. Of course strong governance and institutional capacity are also required to ensure widespread societal benefit as the resource is extracted.

Coal is a relatively easy resource to tap into and make use of. It requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, smelting (e.g. steel making). In the case of Great Britain and the United States coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy to access oil soon followed and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

But the legacy that this leaves, apart from a wealthy society, is a lock-in of the resource on which the society was built. So much infrastructure is constructed on the back of the resource that it becomes almost impossible to replace or do without, particularly if the resource is still providing value.

As developing economies emerge they too look at resources such as coal. Although natural gas is cleaner and may offer many environmental benefits over coal (including lower CO2 emissions), it requires a much higher level of infrastructure and technology to access and use, so it may not be a natural starting point. It often comes later, but in many instances it has been as well as the coal rather than instead of it. Even in the USA, the recent natural gas boom has not displaced its energy equivalent in coal extraction, rather some of the coal has shifted to the export market.

Enter the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The idea here was to jump the coal era and move directly to cleaner fuels or renewable energy by providing the value that the coal would have delivered as a subsidy for more advanced infrastructure. But it hasn’t quite worked that way. With limited buyers of CERs (Certified Emission Reduction units) and therefore limited provision of the necessary subsidy, the focus shifted to smaller scale projects such as rural electricity provision. These are laudable projects, but this doesn’t represent the necessary investment in large scale industrial infrastructure that the country actually needs to develop. Rooftop solar PV won’t build roads, bridges and hospitals or run steel mills and cement plants. So the economy turns to coal anyway.

This is one of the puzzles that will need to be solved for a Paris 2015 agreement to actually start to make a difference. If we can rescue a mechanism such as the CDM and have it feature in a future international agreement, it’s focus, or at least a major part of it, has to shift from small scale development projects to large scale industrial and power generation projects, but still with an emphasis on least developed economies where coal lock-in has yet to occur or is just starting.