As the World Coal Summit kicked off in Warsaw today, activists and scientists sought to remind the negotiators at the UN climate talks that the coal industry’s business plans are incompatible with global efforts to address climate change. Greenpeace activists held a banner on the roof of the Polish Ministry of Economy, where the coal summit is being held, which read, “Who rules the World? Fossil industries or the people?” Another large banner on the building read, “Who rules Poland? The coal industry or the people?”

World Coal Summit Protest in Warsaw Protestbanner vor Kohlegipfel in Warschau

The Polish government’s controversial decision to host an event promoting the coal industry while governments are supposed to be negotiating a plan to address climate change has highlighted the troubling reality that some governments continue to put the interests of the coal industry ahead of the health of our communities and our climate. To reiterate that there is no such thing as “clean coal,” another group of climate activists held a “Cough 4 Coal” demonstration in front of the coal summit with a giant inflatable lung.

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But despite the ongoing support and subsidies from some governments, the coal industry is in reality challenged by a growing realization that its business plan is incompatible with a liveable planet. Twenty-seven leading scientists from around the world released a statement today that made clear that “Avoiding dangerous climate change requires that the majority of fossil fuel reserves need to stay underground,” and noted that:

This is particularly true regarding coal for power generation. Coal is the fossil fuel that can most easily be replaced by near zero carbon alternatives, whereas the liquid fossil fuels are much harder to substitute.

unburnable coal

From the most recent report from the world’s top climate science authority to the International Energy Agency, there is growing recognition that the global carbon budget means most fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Investors are beginning to ask fossil fuel companies to assess the risks that their reserves will become stranded, and this is of particular concern for coal companies. As Al Gore and David Blood wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

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Not all carbon-intensive assets are created equal, and it is reasonable to assume that in carbon-constrained scenarios the projects with the highest break-even costs and emissions profile (e.g., tar sands and coal) will be stranded first.

Indeed, in her controversial speech at the coal summit today, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told the industry point blank that it must “Leave most existing reserves in the ground.”

But so far, most coal companies have failed to recognize this fundamental reality, and continue to push for increased subsidies, more coal-fired power plants and investments in coal extraction and export projects. A spokesman for Peabody, the world’s largest private sector coal company (and host of today’s lunch at the coal summit), summed up their views this way: “We have trillions of tons of coal resources in the world. You can expect the world to use them all.”

It’s an important reminder that the global effort against catastrophic climate change, from the negotiations in Warsaw to communities around the world, is up against an industry dead set on burning up our future.