When Peabody Energy isn’t busy trying to have the lyrics of a folk song struck from the evidentiary record in a Wyoming lawsuit, the company is aggressively pushing fossil fuels like coal — conveniently, Peabody’s main product — as a solution to global poverty.
As Media Matters has thoroughly documented, however, experts say that not only are renewable energy and mini-grids a far better solution to uplift the world’s poor than centralized production of fossil fuel electricity, but also renewables are more affordable and impose a far lower social cost, to boot.
Of course, there’s been another, rather high-profile voice talking about fossil fuels and poverty: Pope Francis, who recently delivered a papal encyclical calling for climate justice around the globe. (You might also remember him from the epic movie trailer for “The Encyclical,” or from that time he stone-cold dropped the mic on climate deniers.)
“Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to [global] warming,” the Pope wrote. He doesn’t see coal, in particular, as a way of solving that crisis: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”
Undaunted, the coal industry and fossil fuels apologists in general proceeded to lecture the Pope on morality. Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray went on Fox Business and said:
There are 7 billion people on this planet, one half of them live in energy poverty. … This Pope, to go out on a speculative subject such as global warming, he is condemning many more of these billions of people to energy poverty … He is misguided. He is totally wrong here.
Media Matters shows how this was a common theme reverberating through the climate denier echo chamber in the wake of the Pope’s encyclical — and also consulted several experts to explain why it’s just plain wrong.
The Pope got it right — fossil fuels cannot solve global poverty
Who knows what Robert Murray means by “energy poverty,” but according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are about 1.3 billion people in the world living without electricity. Some 84 percent of those people live in rural areas, and extending the grid to provide fossil-fueled energy is not feasible for about two-thirds of them. Smaller, localized grids — mini-grids — are more economical in the majority of cases, while some of the most remote areas would be better served by stand-alone, off-grid solutions.
Peabody and Murray are relying on coal’s reputation as a cheap and abundant fuel source when they try to sell it as the only logical way to lift people out of “energy poverty,” but the Carbon Tracker Initiative has shown that coal is actually only cheap when it’s fed into an existing grid. At some point, extending the grid any further makes it “prohibitively expensive” — so coal, in and of itself, cannot be the solution.
Even if this weren’t the case, to suggest fossil fuels are a solution to the problems of the world’s poor is to ignore all the other costs of burning fossil fuels for energy — rising global temperatures, more extreme weather events, pollution of our air, water and land. These are impacts that poor and marginalized communities suffer in disproportionate measure to their contribution to the problem — precisely Pope Francis’ point in his encyclical:
For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. … They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet.
If you factor in the full costs for each mode of energy production, fossil fuels are more than twice as expensive. Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy program, broke down the reasons why renewables are the far cheaper option for Media Matters:
The health and climate costs of fossil fuels in 2050 will be 17 cents/kWh. Meanwhile the direct cost of an entire energy system in both cases (fossil [fuels] and [wind, water, and solar systems (WWS)]) will be around 11 cents/kWh in 2050. This means the total cost of a fossil fuel system is 28 cents/kWh versus 11 cents/kWh for a 100% WWS system in 2050. The fossil fuel system is clearly more expensive to society.
In an email to Media Matters, Adam Siegel, an energy security analyst with the American Security Project, summed it up by saying, “Even without counting that pesky little climate problem, the costs of burning fossil fuels are very real — and fall heavily on the poorest among us. Those seeking to promote fossil fuels wish us to ignore these costs.”
Oh and by the way, here’s the song Peabody wishes you would all ignore, too:
Image Credit: CarmenKarin / Shutterstock.com