Coal and climate change

Plants on wall in Wadham College

Few government policies have longer lead-times than those dealing with infrastructure development. This is demonstrated through the 17-year time-frame from design to deployment for Britain’s replacement Trident subs and it pertains directly to climate change issues. Despite Nicholas Stern’s espousal of a fossil fuel free society by mid-century, fossil fuel based plants are still in construction around the world. Right now, coal power plants account for about 1/4 of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions. About 150 new plants are slated for construction in the United States alone: 56% of them coal fired. By the time they have been completed, operate, and reach the end of their operational lives, we will be getting pretty close to 2050. All told, the International Energy Agency predicts that global coal use will rise by 71% by 2030, raising greenhouse gas emissions with it.

Even if we cannot go straight to infrastructure based entirely around renewables, we can make some modest investments now that could save us a lot of trouble in the long term. One example is building coal plants that can be easily converted to “Oxy-fuel” systems. In these, coal gets burned in nearly pure oxygen. The products of that reaction are mostly pure carbon dioxide, which can then (theoretically) be sequestered underground. By eliminating the need to separate CO2 from other gases, before sequestration, such plants could save a lot of money. Of course, they do require a system to extract oxygen from air to feed the reaction, though this is apparently easier to pull off.

Such transition technologies might be the trickiest part of the entire move away from fossil fuels. Renewables seem as though they will eventually mature, allowing some mix of solar, hydro, and related systems to power the grid. Transition technologies are critical for two other reasons, as well: both China and the United States are concerned about energy security and have masses of native coal, and fast-growing developing countries are unlikely to be able to make the kind of costly commitments to low-carbon energy that developed countries will. Managing interim emissions, and trying to stay below the 550ppm level that the Stern report has highlighted as highly dangerous, will be a considerable challenge.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “Coal and climate change”

  1. Might it not be more sensible to just ban the construction of new coal plants?

  2. Report of the Week: The Future of Coal (MIT)

    Coal is cheap–if we exclude the cost of carbon emmissions. We therefore need a cost of carbon emissions. We also need to develop the technology that can be applied on a large scale to capture this carbon.

    In the developed world energy efficiency and renewables may well be able to provide all the required energy, many reports have shown this as feasible but where energy systems are growing as rapidly as in India and China this is simply not feasible.

    CCS is therefore a key technology. This report looks at the current technological and economic situation and looks at the sort of policies that could ensure widespread implementation of CCS.


  3. “Global Research Technologies, LLC (GRT), a technology research and development company, and Klaus Lackner from Columbia University have achieved the successful demonstration of a bold new technology to capture carbon from the air. The “air extraction” prototype has successfully demonstrated that indeed carbon dioxide (CO2) can be captured from the atmosphere. This is GRT’s first step toward a commercially viable air capture device.”

  4. 50 percent of the electricity generated in the United States is from coal.
    U.S. coal-fired plants have over 300 GW of capacity. Of these, approximately one-third date from 1970 or earlier, and most of the rest from 1970-1989. Only 12 coal-fired plants have been built in the United States since 1990.
    Steep and volatile natural gas prices and high nuclear power costs have led to an estimated 130 new coal-fired plants now on the drawing boards
    Energy security concerns are driving growing interest in using domestic coal for producing transportation fuels and chemicals.


  5. It is estimated that 86 percent of incremental world coal demand between now and 2030 will come from China and India.

  6. CS BS

    Does the coal industry really believe that carbon sequestration can make coal-fired power plants climate friendly? It’s got legislators and even some green campaigners believing so. Given the coal industry’s troubled relationship with the truth, perhaps some skepticism is warranted.

  7. Think You’re Making a Difference?
    Think Again.

    There are 151 new conventional coal-fired power plants in various stages of development in the US today.

    Home Depot is funding the planting of 300,000 trees in cities across the US to help absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions … The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant, in just 10 days of operation, will negate this entire effort.

    Wal-Mart is investing a half billion dollars to reduce the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of their existing buildings by 20% over the next seven years. If every Wal-Mart Supercenter met this target … The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just one month of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.

    California passed legislation to cut CO2 emissions in new cars by 25% and in SUVs by 18%, starting in 2009. If every car and SUV sold in California in 2009 met this standard … The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just eight months of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.

    If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent … The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.

    The Campus Climate Challenge calls for all college campuses in the US to reduce their CO2 emissions to zero. If every college campus building in the US met this challenge … The CO2 emissions from just four medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.

    NY, ME, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI, PA, NJ, DL, MD
    The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cooperative effort by 11 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce their CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2014 … The CO2 emissions from just 13 medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year will negate this entire effort.

    Congress is considering many climate change bills this year to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions … The CO2 emissions from any new coal-fired power plants work to negate these efforts.


    Without coal, all the positive efforts underway can make a difference.

    Over an 11-year period (1973–1983), the US built approx. 30 billion square feet of new buildings, added approx. 35 million new vehicles and increased real GDP by one trillion dollars while decreasing its energy consumption and CO2 emissions. We don’t need coal, we have what we need: efficient design and proven technologies.

    Today, buildings use 76% of all the energy produced at coal plants.

    By implementing The 2030 Challenge* to reduce building energy use by a minimum of 50%, we negate the need for new coal plants.

    Make a Difference: Protect Your Efforts.

    * Issued by: 2030, Inc./Architecture 2030 • The 2030 Research Center •

  8. An inconvenient, dirty truth

    From Friday’s Globe and Mail
    November 16, 2007 at 6:16 AM EST

    ROME — If you want to make money and don’t mind spitting up black phlegm and destroying the planet, buy coal. While the energy markets and the media are obsessed with rising oil prices, the developing world is quietly gearing up for a coal development and consumption spree of astounding proportions. The energy markets of tomorrow are not about oil and hydrogen and wind turbines spinning lazily on ridges. They’re about coal, which is cheap and plentiful but also the worst news for the environment that you could imagine in the post-Al Gore world.

  9. “Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the crack cocaine of the developing world.”

    — Alan Zarembo, L.A. Times, 18 Nov. 2007

  10. Visit to a smouldering coal-fire ghost-town

    By Cory Doctorow on Photo

    Sumana sez, “Keith Allison visited Centralia, Pennsylvania, a mostly-evacuated town whose coal mine caught on fire in 1962. He took pictures and tells the tale.”

    There was no mining to be done after that, though there was plenty of fire fighting going on. The mines were flushed with water. Chunks of flaming coal were excavated. Shafts were backfilled and redrilled, but the fire refused to be tamed. In 1983, as the fire continued to spread, an engineering study was released that stated the fire could very well be burning for another hundred years or more and consume an underground area of roughly 3,700 acres. This spelled pretty dire news for the town of Centralia. Living on top of a raging mine fire was generally considered to be bad for the locals. Smoke, steam, and toxic fumes crept up through the soil. Water became contaminated. Trees died in droves and sat in barren patches of blackened, smoking soil that made the whole town look like it ought to be criss-crossed with trenches full of German and British troops locked in a Western Front stalemate. And then the sinkholes and fissures began opening. One nearly swallowed a young boy whole, and people started thinking that maybe Centralia was a lost cause.

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