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No silver bullets available here

I heard a luncheon speaker last week who channeled James Hansen as he asserted that mitigating climate change is, more than anything else, about coal. And that actions short of shutting down all the coal plants are something between a palliative and an unwarranted distraction.

This line of thinking couldn’t be more right and more wrong at the same time.

The math is incontrovertible. First, here’s a quick study on the relative quantities of greenhouse gases emitted when fossil fuels are combusted:

Emissions by Fuel.jpeg

Next, here’s the most recent data and projections on fuel use from the US Energy Information Administration:

Fig2 World Energy Use by Type.jpeg

So, yes, coal is exceptionally rich in greenhouse gas emissions, and unless there’s a meaningful intervention we’re going to burn a whole lot of coal.

But what is the best way to bring about that intervention? Does anyone really think we have the political will and the economic stamina to self-impose the short-term but serious and widespread socioeconomic dislocation which would result from swift closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the US, never mind stemming their growth in China and India?

Coal is abundant and available domestically in China, the US, India and Russia, not coincidentally the four largest users of coal. And, though I don’t like my own conclusion, I simply can’t envision a future where nations with abundant domestic energy reserves don’t make use of them.

That’s why I’m increasingly a fan of aiming at better ways to use coal. Carbon capture and sequestration is one approach that’s received much attention(pdf). Another is new-age coal-to-liquid technologies, including some which combine coal with biomass to lower the carbon footprint of the resulting liquid fuel. Interestingly, coal-to-liquids research is the recipient of substantial US military funding, as the military has an important interest in securing domestic liquid fuels and the foresight to push suppliers to low-carbon solutions.

We do need to intervene on a grand scale in the coal combustion cycle. To make that happen, we need to step away from all-or-nothing rhetoric, continue to demonstrate our willingness to change by taking personal actions no matter how individually small, and create not only the incentives (that price on carbon we talk so much about) but the technology path to the low-carbon future.

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