Mar 07 2017
It seems clear that if we are going to make significant progress in reducing global CO2 emissions, we are going to need to phase out the burning of coal to generate electricity. The UK may serve as a demonstration of this fact.
In recent years UK coal burning has plummeted – in 2016 the UK burned 18 million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of coal, which is less than it has burned since before 1860. At its peak in 1956 the UK burned 221 Mt of coal.
As a result, overall carbon emissions from the UK have also dropped, from its peak of 685 Mt of carbon in 1970 to 281 in 2016. That is the lowest annual carbon emission from the UK since 1894 (not counting two years in the 1920’s during massive strikes).
Power from coal is being replaced by power from gas, oil, and renewables. Last year the UK generated more power from wind than from coal. Some are crediting the precipitous drop in coal burning to a doubling of the carbon tax in the UK in 2015.
Coal burning in the US has also been decreasing, down to 731 Million short tons (MMst – same as the Mt, 1 short ton or metric tonne is 1,000 kg) in 2016. That’s 18 Mt of coal for the UK vs 731 for the US. Obviously the US is a much larger country and uses more energy, so the percentages and trends are more telling. US energy production is still 33% from coal burning, while it fell to 11% in the UK in 2016. Worse, coal burning is set to increase over the next two years in the US.
This is all dwarfed by China, which produces 73% of its energy by burning coal, and consumes 3.2 billion metric tonnes of coal per year in recent years – that is over 4 times the amount of coal burned by the US. Since 2013 coal burning has decreased a bit in China, displaced by renewables, but China says to expect increases as their urbanization continues.
Burning coal is perhaps the worst way to generate electricity. It is only relatively cheap because the externalized costs are ignored. Even before we consider the consequences of global warming, coal burning causes significant pollution and health effects:
A 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays in the U.S. each year. The total monetary cost of these health impacts is over $100 billion annually.
That $100 billion a year is an externalized cost that those who burn coal for profit do not have to pay. If we tax coal burning (either directly or through a carbon tax) to cover the health impact alone, that would make coal cost-ineffective.
Despite all this, worldwide coal burning is expected to increase through 2040.
If we add to this even the conservative estimates of the negative impacts of global warming from carbon release over the next couple of centuries, it seems insane to continue to burn coal. There should be a global plan to phase out coal as quickly as possible, and to leave remaining coal reserves sequestered in the ground.
In the short term coal can be displaced by gas and oil, which release less CO2 and are less polluting overall. These are still fossil fuels, however, and so this is still only a stop-gap measure.
Many experts think that if we are going to rapidly wean ourselves off coal we will need to build more nuclear plants. Even with the negatives of nuclear in terms of waste storage and cost, it is still far better than coal. We should prioritize the development of next generation nuclear power plants that produce less waste, and may even be able to burn the waste of older plants. We can also develop thorium nuclear power plants.
And of course, renewable energy sources are going to have to play an increasing role. This will likely mean that we need efficient grid storage to help match production with use, as wind and solar are intermittent and not on-demand energy sources.
This would mean displacing coal mining jobs, but that is the nature of technological advance. No one is entitled to the preservation of 19th century technology (and costing society $100 billion per year) to preserve their job. But, if we do embark on a mission to rapidly displace coal it would be reasonable to include programs to help transition coal miners to other work. We can minimize the human cost of the creative destruction of the market, without inhibiting advance by preserving old tech.
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