Global mining group Rio Tinto has thrown its weight behind the continued role of coal in energy generation, arguing for the development of technologies to more efficiently generate electricity from coal as well as to capture its carbon emissions in tackling climate change.
It would be "futile" for Australia to stop coal exports, the head of the miner's coal and uranium units Harry Kenyon-Slaney said at a luncheon on Tuesday. "Breakthroughs in low-emissions coal generation will be fundamental" in solving climate change, he said.
Developing the technology to capture carbon emitted from coal-fired power stations would be a key development, Mr Kenyon-Slaney said. He highlighted a recent UK government report which argued that government must design a credible financial incentive framework for the needed research and development to be conducted.
This technology is already in use in the oil and gas sector, but is uneconomic in coal-fired power generation at present.
At the same time, renewable energy sources cannot be ignored, Mr Kenyon-Slaney said. "They can all help to combat climate change but breakthroughs in low-emissions coal generation will be fundamental. They could break the back of this problem."
Globally, there are 12 projects demonstrating carbon storage that can store 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
"This has the same effect on global emissions as installing 13.6 gigawatts of photovoltaic solar panels," he said. "That's the solar power capacity of the USA, the UK and France, combined. From 12 demonstration projects. The potency of [carbon capture storage] becomes clear."
Simply curtailing coal-fired power generation, along with exports of Australian coal, as some are advocating, was "futile", Mr Kenyon-Slaney said.
"Some Australian commentators on coal exports seem to have exaggerated notions of our relative significance. Global thermal coal production is currently around 7000 million tonnes annually," he said. "China alone produces and consumes half of this. Australia exports under 200 million tonnes – less than 3 per cent. In 2013 China had around 13,900 mines in production. We had 73."
Coal is cheap and abundant, and already accounts for 80 per cent of the electricity generated in China and 70 per cent in India, he said. But the key to reducing carbon emissions lies in lifting the efficiency of coal-fired power plants, as well as developing the needed technology to capture and store its carbon emissions.