Greens wake up to China’s coal boom

Last week I wrote about the spike in Chinese demand for coal, which was driving a boom in coal M&A deals.

The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by environmental campaigners, many of whom are quoted in a piece today in the New York Times.

The paper reports:

At ports in Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa, ships are lining up to load coal for furnaces in China, which has evolved virtually overnight from a coal exporter to one of the world’s leading purchasers.

The problem for green activists is that while they can lobby their own governments to stop using coal as an energy source (with some success in the UK at least), they can do little to prevent private companies exporting it to China, which does not have as stringent standards.

“It’s one step forward, 10 steps back if we allow coal export in our region,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.

That isn’t stopping some taking whatever action they can, however. The paper says:

In Australia, environmental groups have repeatedly halted trainloads of coal headed to the export docks at Newcastle this fall, and flotillas of kayaking protesters have delayed cargo pickups by Asia-bound coal ships.

But such localised action is unlikely to make a serious dent on the global coal market, especially when here are so many companies in so many countries lining up to export coal to China.

There are two ways climate activists might be able to have an influence. One is to campaign for the  emissions produced by coal energy to count against the targets of the countries that produce it, rather than those that burn it. But Chris Huhne, the UK energy secretary, last week summed up why this was unlikely to happen when he told the CBI climate change summit that no government wanted to be held accountable for something that did not fall within its sovereignty.

The other possibility is to establish a high global carbon price, making coal production and combustion less profitable.

But if Nat Rothschild, whom the FT described this weekend as one of the most globally-connected businessmen in the world, is willing to make a $3bn bet on exporting coal to China, the greens’ cause looks a tough one to say the least.

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