28.05.20 Conversation with Bettercoal’s Anne-Claire Howard Interview with Anne-Claire Howard, Bettercoal • 7 min.

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Anne-Claire Howard

The shutdown of coal-fired power plants is accompanied by activists’ cheers. But as old coal plants are closing in Europe new ones are being commissioned in Asia. Debate.Energy spoke to Anne-Claire Howard, Executive Director of Bettercoal, about coal’s future and her organization’s efforts to make the coal supply chain steadily more sustainable.

What got you interested in sustainability and how has sustainability changed during your career?

I majored in Conflict Management and Africa Studies at university with the aim of working for an NGO in a developing country. But my first job was actually at the World Bank. There I discovered that the private sector plays a crucial role in social and economic development. Later, at Shell, I saw first-hand both the positive and negative impact that big energy projects can have. That’s when I started focusing on sustainability. In the beginning my emphasis was primarily on environmental protection with a bit of corporate social responsibility. Sustainability’s spectrum is broader now. Most businesses understand that sustainability isn’t an add-on but is integral to their long-term success. At Bettercoal, we address all aspects of coal’s sustainability—its impact on the climate, the environment, the landscape, people, and their communities—along the entire value chain.

Anne-Claire Howard von Bettercoal

Biologist J.B.S. Haldane and economist Leopold Kohr emphasized size and proportion as key aspects of suitability and therefore sustainability, whether this applies to the length of a kangaroo’s tail, the size of a country, or the prevalence of a technology. Is there a Goldilocks amount of global coal consumption that would be “just right”?

That’s an important question but challenging to answer. Coal is the main target of decarbonization efforts for a simple reason: we use a lot of it and it releases a lot of greenhouse gases, during both production and end-use. Exiting coal is climate protection’s low-hanging fruit. And it’s indeed true that unless we end a lot of coal use and deploy advanced technology to minimize the impact of the coal we still must use, we won’t meet the Paris Agreement targets. But there is such technology. For example, new coal-fired plants being built in South Asia have a dramatically better climate performance than old coal plants being closed in Europe. Looking further ahead, carbon capture and storage will make coal combustion significantly cleaner. No energy source has zero impact, not even renewables. The objective should be to achieve technological advances that maximize each source’s energy yield while minimizing its impact.

What do you say to Europe’s abolitionist phaseout movement?

I sympathize with the desire to decarbonize quickly. But many activists are so determined for their country to quit coal that they ignore that coal is still being used around the world and will be for decades to come. The fastest way to alleviate poverty in developing countries is to give people access to grid electricity. A thought-provoking webinar from the International Energy Agency points out that 1.7 billion people gained access to grid electricity between 1990 and 2010. Over 90% of it was produced with coal. Some 1 billion people worldwide still lack grid electricity. Although renewables will meet some of this demand, so too will new coal plants. Yes, coal use will decline in the decades ahead. But it won’t vanish. So while looking for ways to reduce coal’s role in our economies we also need to see the whole picture, and that includes improving environmental and social performance at mines and along the rest of the coal value chain. As long as coal is burned, it should be produced responsibly. That’s what Bettercoal is about.

What are some of Bettercoal’s biggest accomplishments since its founding in 2013 and the biggest challenges of the decade ahead?

We’ve engaged successfully with coal producers in nine countries and assessed close to 10% of global coal production. Our members’ coal sourcing is becoming steadily more sustainable. In 2019, for example, 72% of the coal they purchased came from suppliers that have pledged to uphold the Bettercoal Standards for environmental protection, social issues, and corporate governance. But there are huge challenges ahead. First, our current membership is mainly European, and Europe’s coal use is decreasing. This lessens European coal buyers’ influence on producers. Unless other end-users of coal are incentivized to purchase from responsible producers, Bettercoal’s accomplishments could be rolled back. Second, the pressure to exit coal isn’t just coming from activists but also from companies’ investors, insurers, and lenders. This financial pressure can lead mining companies to cut corners on safety and environmental protection. In other words, the uncompromising push to end coal immediately is actually creating new risks along the supply chain.

Bettercoal has set up working groups for Columbia and Russia, two of Europe's biggest suppliers. What are some of the challenges specific to each country?

Colombia and Russia are challenging for very different reasons. Colombia is a post-conflict country with decades of history of businesses—including mining businesses—being complicit in violence against indigenous groups and local communities. There are also big environmental challenges like land and water use. But things have improved since our engagement in Colombia, thanks in part to our very collaborative approach with mining companies. The issues in Russia are complex too: biodiversity, deforestation, a lack of engagement with social issues. In some regions many mines operate in close proximity, which creates a large cumulative impact. But we’ve made progress in Russia as well. We work with a number of mining companies that now exceed Russia’s legal requirements for environmental and social issues.

The Bettercoal Standards are being updated to 2.0. What’s new?

The standards reflect new best practices on key issues, such as workers’ rights, a living wage, water use, and tailings dams, which are large earthen structures for storing mining by-products. The standards also improve emissions disclosures, set targets for emission reductions at mines, and cover issues like environmentally and socially responsible mine closure.

What have you read recently that’s particularly insightful about the future of energy?

From the many great sources of information out there I’d recommend the World Bank’s “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition,” a fascinating report that shows how the transition to a low-carbon future will necessarily be accompanied by more mineral extraction and what steps can make mining climate-smarter.

After graduating from Science Po Paris, Anne-Claire Howard spent over 15 years focusing on commercially sustainable extraction (oil, gas, and mining), risk management, and sustainability at organizations like Royal Dutch Shell, Eurasia Group, the International Finance Corporation, and Doctors Without Borders. Her work has taken her to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. She became Bettercoal’s Executive Director in 2017. She also sits on the Coal Industry Advisory Board.


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