Opinion: Mineral is part of the fabric of our human existence
By David Brett, Special to The Vancouver Sun September 4, 2013
Poor coal. Its the mineral not even a mother could love. Its the orphaned rock, dirty to burn and easy to hate. Vancouver was cheered recently for banning coal, even though it had no coal to ban. Oppose coal and youre a rock star. Support coal and youre booed offstage. Surely opposing West Coast coal exports to Asia is the smart, environmentally and morally right thing to do.
Or is it? A series of inconvenient realities suggest otherwise.
First, despite the current trend away from coal to cheap gas, China and other developing countries will need coal for the foreseeable future. The morality of denying them access to it is questionable. For hundreds of millions in China and elsewhere, consuming coal for electricity and heat is not a choice. Removing North American coal supplies from the market will not reduce consumption, but will likely increase prices. It will also encourage coal mining in less safe jurisdictions. Is it right for us to impose such hardships on our fellow human beings while presenting no current practical alternatives?
Second, the intelligence of actively choking off coal exports is suspect. The robust emerging economies of China, India and Southeast Asia are crucial to our own economic well-being. Stock markets tremble at even the hint of a slowdown in China. Consumer confidence here lives in simpatico with Asia. How smart is it to put our foot on the brakes of those economies by increasing their energy costs?
One way some pundits make such imprudence look clever is to style natural resource wealth as a handicap, as if knowledge-based sectors falter when resource extraction thrives. But this is a false argument because the extractive sectors are knowledge-based and already rich with intellectual capital. Just ask any geologist, engineer, or GIS software designer. Resource wealth drives innovation, not the opposite.
Another inconvenient reality is that poverty in the developing world will worsen if we manipulate energy supplies. Industrialization reduces poverty by releasing agrarian families from mere subsistence. It creates higher paying jobs, enabling increased education for children and autonomy for women. Over the long term, this results in a more affluent, service- and knowledge-based economy. The energy driving this gradual process is coal. Blocking North American coal supplies to Asia risks driving up the cost of living for the worlds poor.
Making life harder for the poor through our energy agenda is not something we in the West like to contemplate. Instead, we romanticize the notion of the noble peasant farmer, living off the land with a minimal environmental footprint. Subsistence farming is not poverty, we reason, its a cherished traditional lifestyle we should admire. Of course, most of us dont live those ideals ourselves, choosing rather to educate our children for knowledge-based careers in the city. The dissonance is so real we pat ourselves on the back for paying a few cents extra for fair-trade coffee, as if that rights all the wrong we are doing.
Yes, the negative environmental, health and safety impacts of coal mining and use are significant. Poor countries are not oblivious to coals negative impact, but they need it at present to better the standard of living for their citizens. Why not provide these countries with North American coal thats mined according to tough environmental and safety guidelines, creating well-paying jobs and prosperous communities on this side of the Pacific?
And why not encourage them to use the latest coal burning and scrubber technologies to reduce air pollutants?
The problem with public discourse on coal is that simplistic answers are preferred over holistic, well-reasoned and defensible solutions.
Coal adds to global warming and therefore we should ban it, they say. But the truth is we cant ban coal. Australia will be more than happy to rake in the billions we will be leaving on the table for them.
Then theres the leadership argument. If we take a stand and send a message that coal is bad, we do ourselves proud. But such hectoring from one of the worlds wealthiest cities is at best sanctimonious and at worst pure, selfish NIMBYism.
Coal is not just a much-loathed rock we can toss aside; its part of the fabric of our human existence. We have a complex relationship with coal built over millennia. We cant rashly break it off over night. Coal needs a little love too.
A senior adviser to Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. (greenspiritstrategies.com), David Brett has spent much of his life in the natural resources sector.
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