Global perspective on local coal export proposals

Dogwood Initiative recently had the honour of hosting a visit from Calvin Quek, head of the sustainable finance program at Greenpeace East Asia. Calvin – a Canadian citizen who was born here in Vancouver, but grew up in Singapore – gave a public talk in Richmond on January 12th and participated in a media briefing on the 13th with Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute.

Calvin told a compelling story about how the severity of China’s air pollution crisis (caused primarily by coal-burning for heating, electricity and industry) has spurred dramatic economic policy changes that make the prospects of North American thermal coal export projects pretty bleak. Coal consumption in China has essentially peaked.

Here’s what struck me the most: even on a much different scale and in a vastly different political environment, it was people power that made the difference in getting the government to act. Grassroots action from middle class urban residents venting their frustration and fear about the air pollution crisis in China’s biggest cities have led the Chinese government to roll-out a significant new suite of air quality measures, including specific targets for reducing coal consumption.

What does that mean for us? China will rely chiefly on its own coal reserves, so demand for imports will plummet. Other suppliers like Australia and Indonesia are already competing for this tiny slice of the market. Calvin and other financial analysts agree it is going to be harder and harder for U.S. thermal coal producers to find buyers for their product, even if they can fool a community somewhere on the west coast of North America to build an export terminal.

Calvin’s conclusion: any company, financier or community considering investment in new thermal coal export infrastructure had better have a serious rethink. There is a very real risk that if built, that infrastructure could quickly become a stranded asset with millions of invested dollars wasted. Fraser Surrey Docks is looking to spend about $15 million on their coal export terminal.

Not to mention Xiao Xiao. You may remember Xiao Xiao from my op-ed last year – he is my son’s best friend and our current next-door neighbour in Burnaby. Xiao Xiao and his mom will return home to Tianjin next month. Their city happens to be in one of the regions moving to reduce pollution, but he will still return to drastically unhealthy air, while my sons enjoy the privilege of clear skies and outdoor play.

The youngest lung cancer patient in China (that we know of) is 8 years old.

For me, Xiao Xiao is reason enough to stop exporting coal to China. The fact that coal companies and their friends, like BNSF railway and our port authority, are trying to swindle us into putting our communities at risk in order to squeeze a few more years of profit out of a dying industry that threatens the health of millions of people just gives me extra motivation to make sure we succeed.

Watch a video of Calvin Quek’s presentation about air pollution and coal markets in China.

Take a look at slideshows from Calvin and Clark Williams-Derry of Sightline Institute.

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