De­spite the dan­gers, world de­pends on coal

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY SO­MINI SEN­GUPTA


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.”


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.


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