Coal in the 21st Century and the Critical Transition to Clean Energy

The steady global net phaseout in coal-as-fuel, used for electricity and industrial production, is stumbling. Russia’s 2022 incursion into Ukraine drives some European Union (EU) nations to return to coal. It is unclear how long this EU disruption will continue. But stumbling progress also is due to growing coal demand in some Asian and African nations. Since phasing out coal use is critical to eliminate its significant GHG-emissions impacts — now what?

For the last two years, IGS Senior Fellow David Jermain, Questrom School of Business Associate Professor Justin Ren, and a recent Questrom MBA Eugene Berardi have focused on how to strengthen and accelerate global coal phaseouts. This work began with voluntary advising of the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Energy Hub and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The main focus is on actionable steps to facilitate global coal transitions. A related goal is to deploy electricity to 500 million people without access to it. Both priorities support the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda is 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Two papers inspired by work with UNDP and UNECE were published in The Electricity Journal in 2022 and 2023:

  1. Coal in the 21st century: Integrating policy with practice for just transitions
    December 2022 issue. Authored by David Jermain, Justin Ren, Eugene Berardi, Ray Pilcher, and Scott Foster (also an IGS Senior Fellow).
    The paper discussed what has been learned from coal transition experiences. One key lesson is successful efforts start and end with a focus on impacted workers and communities mine-by-mine. Transition efforts must be specific because each mine is socioeconomically distinct. Impacts affect direct workers as well as indirect (secondary and tertiary) workers serving mining operations. When indirect workers are included, phase-out impacts reach beyond local communities and affect related regions.

  2. Trusting clean energy: Novel perspectives on transition pathways for coal phaseouts and clean electrification phase-ins
    August-September 2023 issue. Authored by David Jermain and Ray Pilcher.
    Ray Pilcher is the Chair of the Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane and Just Transition of the UNECE and also serves as Vice Chair of the Committee on Sustainable Energy. The paper details a novel global “social security” program for coal community transitions using Trust structures. A second Trust model for facilitating the deployment of electricity to areas without it was included in the paper. The electricity deployment Trust can be adapted to support the economic development efforts of coal communities during phaseout. Trust structures are based on a social premise of trusting others to intermediate between a benefactor and a beneficiary in service to the safety and well-being of each. Trust structures enable faster decision-making, increase coordination, save overhead costs, and efficiently deliver desired outcomes. One key lesson is Trust structures can function at a global scale to execute well-defined specific goals efficiently, and they are ideal for facilitating, if not accelerating, global coal transitions.

The core BU affiliates team, and Ray Pilcher, continue to work on coal transition justice. David Jermain spoke at the 32nd session of the UNECE Committee on Sustainable Energy, the week of 10 September 2023. The presentation focused on capturing multiple values from coal mines as substitutes for values gained solely from selling coal-as-fuel. Non-fuel values include the use of coal lands for renewable energy production and harvesting of coal for non-fuel purposes, e.g., carbon materials, minor and trace elements, and coalbed methane (CBM). CBM is processed for hydrogen, carbon materials, and other products. The presentation can be accessed at the 32nd Session of the Committee on Sustainable Energy | UNECE and the Just Transition Session at the 32nd Session of the Committee of Sustainable Energy | UNECE), along with a description of the session and an official summary of its proceedings.

Below are comments by Raymond C. Pilcher, Chair of the Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane and Just Transition of the UNECE and Vice Chair of the Committee on Sustainable Energy:

The papers we have published, and the presentation given at the 32nd Session, have helped to energize conversations and our coal transition efforts at the UNECE. I introduced the presentation by commenting on the principal findings of our work, hoping that those ideas would attract the attention of extractive industry experts sitting in the audience. Following the session, a colleague from the Ministry of Petroleum of a UNECE member nation told me that the concept should be tested in a once-productive coal mining region of his country. He introduced me to the Commissioner of Mines, who found the concept a promising alternative to shutting down mines and struggling to support impacted communities. Nothing I’ve done in my roles with the UNECE over the last several years has had more impact on policy dialogue and how to make coal transitions more actionable than this work. Prior to the presentation on the concept of coal as a multi-resource platform, the Executive Director of the Sustainable Energy Division of the UNECE, Dario Liguti, talked about the concepts that our BU IGS-led team has published regarding financing clean energy. He presented the ideas in a manner that made it clear he supported how they could be crucial to driving energy and economic transitions. He urged member nations to pursue the potential for sustainable green finance. We are just beginning — I will be making presentations on this subject at the Almaty Energy Forum in November and for a MINEX meeting in Poland. MINEX will be attended by mining professionals whose influence on coal mining is considerable. The concepts we’ve developed are a meaningful paradigm shift and we intend to continue developing the concepts through practice in the field and working with our partners located throughout the region.