Climate of Fear XVI.

Coal is an important source of fuel: 38.7 percent of America’s electricity comes from 600 coal-fired generators.[1]

The trouble is that coal is bad for you and other living things. Coal burning for power generation in the United States gives off about 1.575 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That feeds the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Burning coal is worse than burning other fossil fuels. All the gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States give off about a billion tons. Burning natural gas gives off about half the carbon-dioxide as does burning coal.

No one is talking about having passed “peak coal”: there is a lot of coal still in the ground. People concerned about global warming want it to stay there. As the former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu memorably phrased it “there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

However, the coal industry looked to be in decline for the same reason that gasoline prices have fallen recently. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has succeeded. Natural gas prices have fallen by 74 percent over the last ten years. Natural gas, emitting half the carbon dioxide as coal, is now price competitive with coal. Thus, a shift from coal to natural gas would achieve a substantial reduction in emissions without harming anyone—except the coal producers of course. The economics certainly tilt in that direction: 150 of the less efficient coal-fired generation plants have shut down already.

For these reasons, it may have looked like an opportune time to push for a reduction in coal-burning. The Obama Administration is pushing hard to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from the 2005 level by 2030. In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a Clean Power Plan to limit coal burning in the United States. Each state would be required to reduce its carbon emissions. The logical thing to do would be to switch to other forms of energy generation ranging from nuclear to natural gas to “renewables” (solar, wind).

The EPA plan has elicited hard push-back from coal-mining states. The efficiency of coal-mining techniques has increased with the introduction of “open cast” mining (knock off the top of a mountain and excavate the coal with machinery). Coal miners will be thrown out of work[2] and coal mine owners will see their investments destroyed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has denounced the president’s “War on Coal.”[3] A dozen states have sued the EPA, claiming that it has exceeded its authority.

One way to smooth the path from coal would be to invest more in research into “clean coal” technology. So far, research has shown the process to be expensive and difficult. An experimental “clean coal” plant in Kemper, Mississippi, cost five billion dollars. However, it could both pacify the coal interest and find an international market.

The industrialization of countries like India and China are powered by coal. An estimated 82 percent of global coal reserves are still in the ground. China, which recently promised to reach peak carbon-burning by 2029, plans to build 363 new coal-fired plants before then. India is planning to build more than 450 coal-fired generating plants in years to come. The carbon dioxide emissions from these plants will overwhelm any reductions in the United States. Finding a way to “clean coal” might be one way to avert disaster.

[1] “The end of coal?” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 11.

[2] Although employment in coal mining in Kentucky has fallen from 38,000 in 1983 to 17,000 in 2012.

[3] Bearing mind the importance of both tobacco and coal for the state’s economy, maybe they could find a new slogan for Kentucky license plates: “Kentucky is for Respirators.”

Climate of Fear X November 2014.

For twenty years China has been driving hard for industrialization. About 70 percent of all Chinese energy comes from coal. Chinese industry burns coal for fuel and Chinese apartment buildings are heated by coal-burning generators. China burns about as much coal as every other country in the world combined. The newly-affluent Chine middle-class buys cars. There are already 120 million cars and as many other motor vehicles spewing out exhaust.

Of the twenty most-polluted cities in the world, sixteen are in China. All sorts of ludicrous examples of the “How bad is…?” variety can be cited. During one recent bout of smog in Beijing, for example, a factory caught on fire and burned for three hours before anyone noticed the flames. This is at least as bad as that time the river that runs through Cleveland caught fire.

The health effects are awful. Over the last thirty years, Chinese lung cancer rates have risen by 465 percent. Thousands of people stream into hospitals complaining of breathing problems whenever air pollution becomes particularly bad.

The Chinese government turned a blind eye to this problem for a long time. Recently, they have found it much harder to pretend that killer smogs are just “heavy fog.” For one thing, foreigners don’t want to visit China if it just means that they’re going to feel like they’ve been working through two packs of Camels a day for twenty years. Tourism has fallen off and foreign businessmen don’t want to base themselves in China. For another thing, ordinary Chinese people are starting to complain. Since Tiananmen Square back in 1989 most Chinese have been cautious about demonstrating for democratic government. However, the environmental problems are pushing people into the streets for reasons other than a stroll in the park. One count estimates that there are 30,000 to 50,000 protests a year over clean air, clean water, and clean food.

The pollution problems have become so severe, and have generated a measure of public unrest, that the government began preparing for a shift to nuclear power and renewable energy sources. Looking down-range fifteen to twenty years, they seem to have concluded that they would have to continue expanding the generation of electricity through carbon-burning while preparing for a transition to other forms of energy. Hence Chinas commitment in November 2014 to reach peak carbon burning and to draw 20 percent of their energy from non-carbon sources by 2030, formalized its existing policy.

Still, this commitment leaves a bunch of stuff—aside from ash particles—up in the air.     How much energy will China require in 2030? Are they close to meeting their projected needs already? If so, then reaching peak could be a simple matter. What if they’re only at their half-way mark? Is there any quantitative value assigned as the Chinese peak? Or do the Chinese just get to expand carbon burning as fast as they can until 2030, while also expanding non-carbon energy sources to 20 percent of whatever is the total peak? Will China be building nuclear power plants and solar collectors at a rapid pace for decades to come? If the Chinese government is responding now to public unhappiness with pollution, how will it respond in the future to public unhappiness with either slowing economic growth or trying to transition away from a major industry?


“The face-mask nation,” The Week, 15 November 2013, p. 9.

Henry Fountain and John Schwartz, “Climate Pact by U.S. and China Relies on Policies Now Largely in Place,” NYT, 13 November 2014.

Climate of Fear IX November 2014.

India is bound to be a big loser from global climate change. The air pollution in Delhi is worse than that in Beijing; sea-level rise could forcibly displace 37 million Indians by 2050, and water for farmers could be affected by accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas or disruption of the monsoons. So, India has a deep interest in limiting climate change. However, India is also one of the principle forces causing climate change.[1]

Burning coal for generating electricity is central to India’s strategy for economic development. The country has huge coal deposits (the fifth largest in the world), but little oil or natural gas. Consequently, India launched a ten year plan for building coal-burning generating plants back in 2009. Generating capacity has already expanded by 73 percent. In 2013 India burned 565 million tons of coal. Most Indian coal has a high ash-content, so it pollutes more than do some other commonly used types of coal. This makes India the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2019 the government plans to burn more than a billion tons a year. “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” the government’s Minister of Power has asserted.

It will be difficult to argue that India should adjourn its plans for development. Three hundred million Indians have no electricity at all, and many more have it only in fits and starts. On a per-capita basis, Indians consume only one-fourteenth as much electricity as do Americans. In a country with hundreds of millions of people living in grotesque poverty, making do with less isn’t much of an option. Electricity powers industry and industry raises incomes.

India’s coal-fired industrialization effort alarms environmentalists elsewhere. “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.” said one climate scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There isn’t much ground for expecting push-back by Indian environmentalists. For the most part, Indians seem to accept both air pollution and the physical displacement of populations in the countryside to make space for more coal mines. The environmental movement in China seems to have more support behind it and, therefore, more influence with the government than is the case in India.

Nuclear power and solar generation offer alternative energy sources. A lot of Western India is cloudless for much of the year, so a lot of solar energy the ground. The government of Narendra Modi has said that it will launch a program of constructing solar-energy plants. Whether this can be carried forward fast enough and on a large enough scale to replace India’s reliance on coal is hard to tell.

So, that’s a problem. Still, China currently burns as much coal as every other country in the world combined. Can India’s coal-burning really pose more of a problem than does that of China?[2] The recent agreement between the United States and China called for China to cap its greenhouse gas emissions before 2030. The Chinese may continue to shovel on the coal until then, but they also might begin to shift from a reliance on coal to other energy sources. If that comes true, it will be a lot more significant for the climate than is India’s continuing development of coal. If the rest of the world moves in one direction, then India might find a way to follow. There’s a couple of big “Ifs” there. Still, the prospects look better than they did a little while ago.

[1] Gardiner Harris, “Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance of Climate Change,” NYT, 18 November 2014.


[2] China produces 46 percent of the world’s coal and imports more; India produces 7.7 percent of the world’s coal, but has been developing its own reserves because of the cost of imports. See: “Climate of Fear IX.”