Coal threatens climate calamity

Posted: 12 December 2006

As countries around the world wrestle with the challenges of global warming, more than 150 new coal-fired power plants are planned or being built in the United States, and some 550 such plants are under construction in coal-rich China. If this is done the results are likely to be disastrous for the world's climate say researchers reporting for the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

According to Susan Moran in Coal Rush and Hou Yanli and Hu Min in China and Her Coal,writing in the January/February 2007 issue of World Watch magazine, the world's two worst offenders are on a recklesscrash course to increase reliance on coal.

In 2004, releases from coal-burning power plants accounted for 32 per cent of total US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while in China, 70per cent of CO2 emissions could be traced to coal. The International Energy Agency forecasts that China's rapidly expanding use of coal will lead it to surpass the United States as the largest emitter of CO2 by 2009.

In response to growing consumer electricity demand and buttressed by government subsidies, large US utility companies like TXU Energy,American Electric Power, and Xcel Energy are expanding construction of coal-fired power plants. Between 1950 and 1997, the coal industryreceived more than US$70 billion in federal subsidies, or nearly $1.5 billion a year. In 2005, Congress approved an additional $7.8 billion for coal, including several billion for a "clean coal" research and development program.

As China struggles to meet ravenous and growing energy demand, suppliers are turning increasingly to the nation's vast coal reserves, which exceed 1 trillion tons, about 12 perc cent of the world total. Yet China's widespread and growing use of coal-fired power plants is likely to lead to irreversible environmental damage and cost the country billions of dollars in pollution-related harm.

Public pressure

Seventy per cent of the 20 million tons of particulate matter and other smog-forming pollutants the nation emitted in 2005 were from coal. The unhealthy levels of air pollution in one-third of all monitored Chinese cities contributed to $63 billion in economic losses in 2004, or roughly 3 per cent of GDP.

Janet Sawin, Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher and Director of the Institute's Energy and Climate Change Program, notes that in the US public pressure could hinder the re-emergence of coal.

In what could be a precedent-setting case, public hearings are being held this week in Minnesota to determine whether state regulators will allow utilities to build new coal plants despite the financial risks arising from increased global warming pollution. Similarly, some TXU shareholders have publicly questioned whether continuing to build coal-fired plants is a wise path to pursue because of the risk of future legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

In China, while increasing energy demands are prompting the construction of more coal-fired plants, the national government has set targets to meet 16 per cent of all energy from renewables by 2020 - an important step towards slowing the increase of China's future emissions.

"It is critical to scale up public pressure and to enact policies that put a price on carbon emissions and create markets for renewable energy if the world is to resist turning to coal to meet its energy needs," says Sawin. Note: Students can subscribe to World Watch magazine at a reduced rate of $17 for one year, plus $16 for those outside the United States. To purchase go to www.worldwatch.org