Russian coal dirtier than previously thought – IEA
The lifecycle emissions of the world’s coal mines are substantially higher than previously assumed, with those of Europe’s main foreign supplier – Russia – especially bad, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) research.
The world’s coal mines emit roughly 40m tonnes of methane each year, the IEA said in its World Energy Outlook released last week.
While this greenhouse gas dissipates faster than carbon dioxide, it has 30 times the warming impact of CO2 in the atmosphere over the span of a century.
That puts coal mine methane emissions at around 1,200m tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually – broadly similar to the combined annual emissions of the world’s aviation and shipping industries.
“Coal is even more polluting than we thought,” said Dave Jones, an electricity analyst at climate campaign group Sandbag.
China is responsible for the vast bulk of the world’s coal mine methane, although the world’s ‘leakiest’ mines are located in Kazakhstan, Russia and Poland, according to Sandbag.
Russian coal is one of Europe’s most competitive fuels. The world’s third-largest hard coal exporter is Europe’s biggest foreign supplier and met 45% of European import demand last year.
The incoming European Commission has indicated it will address the upstream fugitive emissions of Europe’s gas imports as part of efforts to tighten climate policy, but the issue has so far flown under the radar for coal, said Jones.
“Everyone knows about the problem for oil and gas and no one talks about it for coal,” he said. “Basically when you look at hard coal we should be adding 10% to the emissions everyone looks at.”
Measured over a century, the upstream emissions of Russian mines are on average 19% greater than the carbon released from burning their fuel, according to Sandbag.
This is because the country has the world’s highest concentration of mines below 300 meters, said Jones.
No easy answers
Ray Pilcher, chair of a group of experts on the subject that convenes under a United Nations mandate, described the magnitude of the IEA’s figures on the global problem as “nothing surprising”.
However, they still exceeded earlier US Environmental Protection Agency estimates by 50%.
It was “unlikely” countries would close deep coal mines to tackle the problem, Pilcher said, noting Russian pressure to focus more on mine safety than climate impact in UN forums. The country was also growing its export capacity with an eye for Asian import appetite, he added.
“The deep coal mines are operated because the coal is valued in the market even at the cost and danger of deep mining,” Pilcher said.
The oil and gas industry leaks about twice as much methane into the atmosphere every year, but the problem is potentially easier to tackle here.
Almost half this sector’s methane leaks could be prevented at no net cost because the value of the captured methane is greater than the cost of installing abatement technologies, according to the IEA.
By contrast, methane emissions at coal mines are less concentrated and fluctuate in quality and quantity. Processes to recover emissions are expensive and mines are not normally located close to potential gas customers.
Russia shipped 167m tonnes of hard coal last year, including 68m tonnes to Europe, according to the German coal importers association.