The above wording is blogger David Roberts‘ attempt to summarize the relationship between humanity and coal in the 21st century. While many countries rely on it to produce electrical power and fuel other sorts of industry, there are huge negative externalities associated with it as a power source. These include:
- Environmental destruction and contamination from coal mining.
- Human health impacts from coal mining
- Air pollutant emissions from coal burning, including particulate matter and mercury
- Greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning
- Toxic coal ash
A report from the US National Research Council found that American coal plants produce $62 billion per year in negative externalities, before climate impacts are taken into account.
Climate change is the biggest danger associated with coal. Firstly, coal produces a lot of CO2 per unit of useful energy. Secondly, coal reserves are so enormous that burning a significant fraction of what is left would essentially guarantee more than 2°C of mean warming globally, the level scientists and policy-makers have generally accepted as ‘dangerous.’
If it can prove safe, cheap, and effective, there may be a future for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Until that is demonstrated, we cannot assume that there is a future for coal as an energy source. Even before you take the climate impacts into consideration, the total costs are unfavourable compared to greener and renewable alternatives. Once climate change is factored in, the case against non-CCS coal becomes conclusive.
[16 February 2010] Now that I have a fuller understanding of the importance of not burning coal and unconventional fossil fuels, because of their cumulative climatic impact, I have launched a group blog on the topic: BuryCoal.com. Please consider having a look or contributing.