Despite the dangers, world depends on coal
Coal, the fuel that powered the industrial age, has led the planet to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
Scientists have repeatedly warned of its looming dangers, most recently Friday, when a major scientific report issued by 13 U.S. government agencies concluded that the damage from climate change could knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the U.S. economy by century’s end if significant steps aren’t taken to rein in warming.
Internationally, an October report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on global warming found that avoiding the worst devastation would require a radical transformation of the world economy in just a few years.
Central to that transformation: getting out of coal, and fast.
And yet three years after the Paris Agreement, when world leaders promised action, coal shows no sign of disappearing.
While coal use is certain to eventually wane worldwide, it is not on track to happen anywhere fast enough to avert the worst effects of climate change, according to the latest assessment by the International Energy Agency. Last year, in fact, global production and consumption increased after two years of decline.
Cheap, plentiful and the most polluting of fossil fuels, coal remains the single largest source of energy to generate electricity worldwide. This, even as renewables like solar and wind power are rapidly becoming more affordable. Soon, coal could make no financial sense for its backers.
So, why is coal so hard to quit?
Because coal is a powerful incumbent. It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity – and retain their own power. In some countries, it has been a glistening source of graft.
And even while renewables are spreading fast, they still have limits: Wind and solar power flow when the breeze blows and the sun shines, and that requires traditional electricity grids to be retooled.
“The main reason why coal sticks around is, we built it already,” said Rohit Chandra, who did his doctorate in energy policy at Harvard, specializing in coal in India.
The battle over the future of coal is being waged in Asia.
Home to half the world’s population, Asia accounts for three-fourths of global coal consumption today. More important, it accounts for more than three-fourths of coal plants that are either under construction or in the planning stages – a whopping 1,200 of them, according to Urgewald, a German advocacy group that tracks coal development. Heffa Schücking, who heads Urgewald, called those plants “an assault on the Paris goals.”
Indonesia is digging more coal. Vietnam is clearing ground for new coal-fired power plants. Japan, reeling from 2011 nuclear plant disaster, has resurrected coal.
The world’s juggernaut, though, is China. The country consumes half the world’s coal. More than 4.3 million Chinese are employed in the country’s coal mines. China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase for just 16 years. “I had to do the calculation three times,” said Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “I thought it was wrong. It’s crazy.”
CHANGE IN CHINA
Spurred by public outcry over air pollution, China is now also the world leader in solar and wind power installation, and its central government has tried to slow down coal plant construction. But an analysis by Coal Swarm, a U.S.based team of researchers that advocates for coal alternatives, concluded that new plants continue to be built, and other proposed projects have simply been delayed rather than stopped. Chinese coal consumption grew in
2017, though at a far slower pace than before, and is on track to grow again in 2018, after declining in previous years.
China’s coal industry is now scrambling to find new markets, from Kenya to Pakistan. Chinese companies are building coal plants in 17 countries, according to Urgewald. Its regional rival, Japan, is in the game, too: Nearly 60 percent of planned coal projects developed by Japanese companies are outside the country, mostly financed by Japanese banks.
Global warming is now affecting the United States more than ever, and the risks of future disasters – from flooding along the coasts to crop failures in the Midwest – could pose a profound threat to Americans’ well-being.
That’s the gist of Volume Two of the latest National Climate Assessment, a 1,656-page report issued Friday that explores both the current and future impacts of climate change. The scientific report, which comes out every four years as mandated by Congress, was produced by 13 federal agencies and released by the Trump administration.
This year’s report contains many of the same findings cited in the previous National Climate Assessment, published in 2014. Temperatures are still going up, and the odds of dangers such as wildfires in the West continue to increase. But reflecting some of the impacts that have been felt across the country in the past four years, some of the report’s emphasis has changed.
Predicted effects have happened: More and more of the predicted impacts of global warming are now becoming a reality.
For instance, the 2014 assessment forecast that coastal cities would see more flooding in the coming years as sea levels rose. That’s no longer theoretical: Scientists have now documented a record number of “nuisance flooding” events during high tides in cities like Miami and Charleston, South Carolina.
“High tide flooding is now posing daily risks to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems in the Southeast,” the report says.
As the oceans have warmed, disruptions in U.S. fisheries, long predicted, are underway. In 2012, record ocean temperatures caused lobster catches in Maine to peak a month earlier than usual, and the distribution chain was unprepared.
Tied together: The report suggests a different approach to assessing the effects of climate change, by considering how various impacts – on food supplies, water and electricity generation, for example – interact with each other.
“It is not possible to fully understand the implications of climate change on the United States without considering the interactions among sectors and their consequences,” the report says.
It gives several examples, including recent droughts in California and elsewhere that, in combination with population changes, affect demand for water and energy. The report also cites Superstorm Sandy, six years ago, which caused cascading impacts on interconnected systems in the New York area, some of which had not been anticipated. Flooding of subway and highway tunnels, for example, made it more diffi- cult to repair the electrical system, which suffered widespread damage. Beyond borders: The U.S. military has long taken climate change seriously, both for its potential impacts on troops and infrastructure around the world and for its potential to cause political instability in other countries.
The report cites these international concerns, but goes far beyond the military. Climate change is affecting U.S. companies’ overseas operations and supply chains, it says, and as these impacts worsen it will take a toll on trade and the economy. Adaptation: Since 2014, more detailed economic research has estimated that climate change could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in annual damage, as deadly heat waves, coastal flooding, and an increase in extreme weather take their toll. To limit that harm, communities will need to take steps to prepare.
The previous assessment warned that few states and cities were taking steps to adapt to the impacts of climate change. That’s slowly changing, the new report finds. Some communities are taking measures such as preserving wetlands along the coasts to act as buffers against storms.
But outside of a few places in Louisiana and Alaska, few coastal communities are rethinking their development patterns in order to avoid the impacts from rising seas and severe weather that the report says are surely coming.
Focus on air quality: The report puts a renewed emphasis on the impacts of other atmospheric pollutants such as ozone and smoke, which can cause respiratory problems and lead to premature death.
HOME TO HALF THE WORLD’S POPULATION, ASIA ACCOUNTS FOR THREE-FOURTHS OF GLOBAL COAL CONSUMPTION TODAY.