Coal is back: The cause of thick smog that blackened the industrial revolution, the coal of realist novels by Emil Zola and the stuff of nightmares for small men who, in Wallonia or Sardinia, went down into the belly of the earth. It seemed destined to exile. Then the Fukushima accident rewrote history, re-launching a resource that, only a year ago, Europe was demanding be banned by 2050.

All world powers are reviewing their budgets and their plans in order to reduce the share of nuclear power because public opinion demands it and, until renewable energy becomes truly profitable, they are returning to the first ‘black gold’, a resource that while, thought of as obsolete, still lights one out of two light bulbs.

This shows are far we are from ‘decarbonisation’. Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), told the European Parliament a few days ago that the Japanese disaster has led to the decision to reduce by half nuclear power plant construction programmes scheduled up to 2035. Rather than the 360 Gw of expected production, only 180 Gw will be supplied. This represents a fall of 10 to 14% in the share of nuclear power in global energy production. It’s estimated that a third of demand will have to be re-oriented and will be supplied by the coal market. This has two troublesome consequences: An inevitable rise in both the market price and in greenhouse gas emissions.

Growing demand

Global demand in lignite and other types of coal has risen significantly, spurred by China and India. Analysts forecast a rise in production by over 50% by 2035. In 2010, global production reached 6.5 billion tonnes, an 8% year-over-year rise. Over all, coal represents 41% of global electricity production, with Europe accounting for 26% of the total.

But these figures are bound to change. Giuseppe Lorubio, analyst for Eurelectric (European association of energy producers and suppliers) calculated that shutting down only 28 – out of 143 – of the older European nuclear reactors will increase the needs in coal by 8 – 10%.

Germany, Europe’s primary consumer of anthracite, has begun a painful return and Poland, which can extract 90% of its energy needs from coal, is preparing to do the same. The English, sustained by a balanced mix of nuclear power, coal and gas, are playing the green card to replace their most decrepit power stations. For the rest, the scenario is stable: In Europe there is no margin for building new coal-fired plants. Those resources available will have to be exploited to the fullest.

Cheap but ethically problematic

The Lords of Coal say that their resource is ‘democratic’ because it is relatively cheap and, because it is labour intensive, job-creating. This is true. Nonetheless, there is an obvious social trap since the European Commission announced that it wanted an ethical commitment for this type of exploitation, which, especially in China and Latin America, often has recourse to children, like the English did in the days of Dickens.

What’s more, so that the producing countries commit to respecting the environment, a fee will be set for CO2 emission rights as of 2013 and will weigh on the budgets of electricity companies throughout Europe.

Obviously it is imperative to pollute less, while coal, for its part, has not changed: It’s the extraction processes that have evolved. Dangerous lignite, for example, which, with its high humidity content, releases, among other things, dreaded sulphur oxides, is today dried during the extraction and processing stages.

Furthermore, CO2 capture and stocking systems are now widely used. Channelled and transformed into a liquid, the carbon dioxide is then stocked in an underground depot. At the same time, Brussels is trying to put the Member States on the right path despite political hesitations and budgetary problems. Clearly Fukushima forced the Europeans to change their strategy. If this has simplified things remains to be seen.