Pacific island nation of Kiribati calls for moratorium on new coal mines

OSLO (REUTERS) - The President of the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati called on Thursday for a global moratorium on new coal mines to slow global warming and a creeping rise in world sea levels.

Kiribati's 100,000 people live on 32 atolls in the central Pacific, most of which are less than 6m above sea level and are suffering coastal erosion as the world's ice caps melt.

"Let us join together as a global community and take action now," President Anote Tong wrote in a letter to world leaders, ahead of a UN summit on climate change in Paris in December. "I urge you to support this call for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions."

A draft negotiating text for the Paris meeting of world leaders, due to agree a UN climate pact, include options for cutting carbon emissions to net zero, perhaps by 2050 or 2100. No mention is made specifically of coal mining.

When burnt, coal releases more heat-trapping gases than oil or natural gas. That has increasingly made it the target of calls for a shift to renewable energies such as wind or solar power to stem global warming.

Welcoming Mr Tong's appeal, Mr Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics and president of the British Academy science group, said coal caused both warming and air pollution.

"The use of coal is simply bad economics, unless one refuses to count as a cost the damages and deaths now and in the future from air pollution and climate change," he said in a statement.

Among other appeals, Pope Francis said in an encyclical in June that the use of "highly polluting fossil fuels needs to be progressively replaced without delay", at odds with some investments in coal by the US Catholic church.

Head of environmental group Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo, who was visiting Kiribati on Thursday, said 80 per cent of coal reserves should be left in the ground.

"We know the science and we know the end of the age of coal is coming," he said.

The coal industry says new technology can cut emissions. Canada's Saskatchewan Power opened the world's first utility-scale coal-fired power plant last year, fitted with equipment for capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Last year, Kiribati bought 2,400ha of land on higher ground in Fiji to back up food production, under threat from erosion and storms blowing salt water onto farmland.

The UN's panel of climate scientists says sea levels could rise by between 26cm and 82cm by the late 21st century after a gain of 19cm since 1900.