The Economist has been bold enough to suggest that ‘the writing is on the wall’ for coal-fired power plants in the United States, unless they can be converted to run on biomass or incorporated into other ‘green’ compromises. While there have apparently been 97 coal plants cancelled since 2001 (and nine so far this year), those that are operating now are long lived; their contribution to US emissions will barely fall between now and 2030. Unusually, the article makes no mention of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which many supporters of fossil-fuel based power hope will soon emerge as a cheap, safe, and effective mechanism for preventing greenhouse gas emissions. The omission is actually a welcome one, given how tempted industry groups, governments, and commenters in general have been to see CCS as a simple silver-bullet mechanism for maintaining the status quo.
Worldwide, there must be an ever-increasing determination to prevent the construction of new coal capacity, except where it incorporates safe and effective CCS technology (if that proves possible). Meeting climate change mitigation targets (including avoiding a temperature increase of more than 2Â°C above pre-industrial levels) probably also means a fair bit of existing coal capacity will need to be converted to biomass or brought offline before the end of its economical lifetime. That will provoke the fierce opposition of those who have invested in such projects, though that may be a necessary signal to the market at large that coal-fired power is no longer acceptable – the carbon in the world’s coal beds needs to remain there, rather than being added to an atmospheric stock that is already dangerously high.
States like Canada and the US should be working to rebuild the basis of their energy system on the basis of non-emitting and renewable options. In so doing, they will establish the prerequisites for their own prosperity in the future, as well as help develop the technologies and approaches that will make the same transition possible in rapidly growing developing states.