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.
Coal miners remove and store coal extracted from a mine in the state of Telangana, India. Coal, the most polluting of energy sources, shows no sign of disappearing.