Coal’s prob­lem is not cli­mate change: Kemp

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

US coal com­pa­nies blame cli­mate cam­paign­ers and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for wag­ing a war on coal that has cost thou­sands of jobs and threat­ened strug­gling min­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

But coal’s long-term prob­lems stem not from pol­i­tics but from phys­i­cal prop­er­ties that make it an in­fe­rior source of en­ergy com­pared with oil, gas and (ar­guably) re­new­ables. Coal has been los­ing the “war” for mar­ket share since the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury as other sources of en­ergy have be­come cheaper and more abun­dant. Ris­ing en­ergy con­sump­tion in ad­vanced economies and emerg­ing mar­kets masked coal’s rel­a­tive de­cline in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury and first decade of the 21st. But as en­ergy con­sump­tion has reached a plateau in de­vel­oped coun­tries, coal de­mand has started to de­cline in ab­so­lute and rel­a­tive terms in the more mod­ern economies.

Con­sump­tion has con­tin­ued to grow in poorer coun­tries, where coal has played a cru­cial role in mak­ing elec­tric­ity avail­able for the first time to hun­dreds of mil­lions of house­holds. But the same prob­lems that en­sured coal’s re­place­ment in the ad­vanced economies will grad­u­ally lead to its re­place­ment in emerg­ing mar­kets as well.

Coal’s dis­place­ment by other sources of en­ergy is part of a “grand en­ergy tran­si­tion” that has seen the dom­i­nant en­ergy source shift suc­ces­sively from wood to char­coal, coal and oil. The pre­cise dates vary slightly from coun­try to coun­try, but coal started to be­come an im­por­tant source of en­ergy on a global scale just be­fore 1850 (“En­ergy tran­si­tions: his­tory, re­quire­ments, prospects”, Smil, 2010).

Tra­di­tional bio­fu­els such as wood and corn stalks con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate the global en­ergy sys­tem un­til 1900, when they were fi­nally over­taken in im­por­tance by fast-grow­ing coal con­sump­tion.

Coal re­mained the dom­i­nant en­ergy source un­til the 1960s, when it was over­taken by oil (“Global pri­mary en­ergy con­sump­tion, 1800-2015”, Our World in Data, 2017). But in re­cent years, nat­u­ral gas con­sump­tion has been grow­ing faster, and gas is set to over­take oil as the sin­gle largest source of pri­mary en­ergy within the next decade. Pre­dict­ing tran­si­tions be­yond nat­u­ral gas is fraught with un­cer­tainty but cli­mate cam­paign­ers hope the global en­ergy sys­tem will shift from gas to wind and so­lar.

A ques­tion of physics

Each step in the grand en­ergy tran­si­tion has seen the dom­i­nant fuel dis­placed by one that is more con­ve­nient and use­ful. The rea­sons for the orig­i­nal shift from tra­di­tional bio­fu­els to char­coal and then coal are still dis­puted by schol­ars. Wood was in short sup­ply around ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas by the 17th and 18th cen­turies but it is un­clear whether short­ages were lo­calised or be­com­ing more gen­eral. In any event, trans­port­ing larger quan­ti­ties of wood over length­en­ing dis­tances from in­creas­ingly re­mote forested ar­eas to con­sum­ing cities was be­com­ing a lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lem.

The so­lu­tion was to turn wood into char­coal, which was much more com­pact, and even­tu­ally to shift to coal, which was even more com­pact and eas­ier to trans­port. Tra­di­tional bio­fu­els may have been be­com­ing more scarce, but it was the in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of coal and its de­creas­ing price that drove the tran­si­tion. Coal was sim­ply more use­ful as a source of en­ergy than tra­di­tional bio­fu­els. Once it be­came cheap enough, it rapidly re­placed wood and agri­cul­tural waste in most uses. The same process ex­plains the grad­ual dis­place­ment of coal by oil dur­ing the 20th cen­tury and now by nat­u­ral gas in the 21st cen­tury. There is far more en­ergy in one kilo­gram of re­fined gaso­line (46 mega­joules) or gas (54 mega­joules) than in a kilo­gram of bi­tu­mi­nous coal (24-35 mega­joules), let alone wood (18 mega­joules). —Reuters

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