De­spite the dan­gers, world de­pends on coal

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - 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.


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.

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