Business Maverick

Business Maverick

World Coal Association CEO says sector’s obituary is premature, but admits to ‘brand problem’

Michelle Manook, the CEO of the World Coal Association, admits that the fossil fuel has a ‘brand problem’. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Coal is not dead, says Michelle Manook, the CEO of the World Coal Association. But she admits that fossil fuel has a ‘brand problem’, and that its brand has effectively been destroyed. Rebranding the sector might be as hard as performing on a flying trapeze, to cite George Orwell. 

In this day and age, it must be hard times for an organisation dedicated to advancing the cause of coal. The fossil fuel’s well-established links to climate change and pollution more generally have rendered it unpalatable as an asset. Responding to investor and wider public concerns, companies like Anglo American have shed coal from their portfolios. And financing for new coal projects is increasingly hard to raise. Many banks don’t want to touch the stuff with an Eskom power pole.

“We don’t just have a communication problem – it’s more serious than that. We have a brand problem, and our ‘brand coal’ has been destroyed,” Michelle Manook, CEO of the World Coal Association (WCA), said in the keynote address to the online Coal Industry Day, part of the Joburg Indaba series of mining conferences organised by Resources4Africa.

She went on to say that “creating a new ‘brand coal’ is necessary and will be a journey of change and technology transformation”.

Manook said that will require an acceleration of investments in “clean coal” – a term regarded by many greens as an oxymoron.

“There are commercially available technologies which exist today which qualify coal to participate on a net-zero pathway. Efficiency gains alone will not be sufficient to deliver the emissions reductions required in a world of growing energy demand. But… there is a potential solution, offering the vision of an ultra-low emissions future, via carbon capture and storage.”

This concept has had considerable currency among coal companies – capture the carbon emissions generated by coal and store them underground. It is taking front and centre stage in the industry’s lobbying as it fights for survival in the face of a global drive towards renewable sources of energy, which are becoming cheaper and more efficient.

And while “clean coal” may be a hard sell to a sceptical public, coal mines and power plants are not about to close en masse tomorrow. Manook cited figures which suggest that the commodity’s obituaries are premature.

“Global coal capacity grew every year between 2000 and 2019, nearly doubling from 1,066GW to 2,045GW with more than 319GW of new coal capacity being added in emerging markets between 2014 and 2018. Coal remains the world’s largest single source of electricity and will still be the biggest contributor in the fuel mix pie at 22% in 2040,” she said in prepared remarks.

This does not mean that the pace of such growth will not be arrested soon. “Branding problems” are not easy to shake.

Coal has certainly played a key role in the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern world – and many of the amenities that most of us take for granted – even as its use has helped to warm that world up in ecologically distressing ways.

“Our civilisation… is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it,” George Orwell wrote in a classic essay, Down the Mine

“The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world, the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.”

Many of the machines that make machines remain dependent on coal. The steel and cement sectors still rely heavily on it. And machines that keep us alive – think of oxygen setups in South African hospitals – are powered by Eskom, and hence coal. At the same time, Mpumalanga’s air is toxic because of coal, giving rise to the need in some cases for such machines.

After going down a coal mine, the punishingly arduous nature of a coal miner’s job left Orwell broken and breathless.

“The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze,” Orwell wrote.

Getting investors, banks and the wider public to buy into the concept of clean coal may be the equivalent of performing on a flying trapeze – difficult to pull off, and not for the faint of heart. DM/OBP/BM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    If the industry had not engaged in decades of paid lobbying and taken mountains of taxpayer subsidies, I would have sympathy.

    It blows ones mind that it ever made sense to think of digging massive open cast and other mines to get at low value rock to burn for a tiny effective yield on potential energy, polluting the land and air and water in a dozen irreparable manners. Almost seems primitive.

    Now : remember to leave the rehabilitation funds behind and mind the door on your way out!

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