Cleaning Up Coal

From Climate Culprit to Solution

Coal, the rock that fueled the industrial age, is once again remaking the global energy landscape. Over the past decade, while most of the world stood transfixed by the gyrations of the oil markets, the promise of alternative energy, and the boom in cheap natural gas, coal left all other forms of energy in its dust, contributing nearly as much total energy to the global economy as every other source combined.

That explosive increase in coal use came not from the developed world, where demand is plateauing, but from the developing world, where the fuel remains the cheapest, most reliable source of electricity. This year, the market in globally traded coal used to generate electricity is expected to reach 850 megatons -- twice the total in 2000. If current trends continue, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China and India alone will drive 75 percent of the growth in coal demand before 2035, and coal will become the world's single largest source of energy before 2030. 

But just as coal is remaking energy markets, it is also remaking the climate. Coal combustion is the world's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, responsible for almost 13 billion tons per year. (By comparison, oil and natural gas account for 11 billion tons and 6 billion tons, respectively.) With demand for coal ballooning in Asia, between 2010 and 2035, fully half the total increase in global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel use will come from coal use in the region. The climate problem, in other words, is a coal problem. 

For the last two decades, economists and diplomats have tended to favor one solution to that problem: putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, which would allow markets to find the cheapest route to a cooler climate. But so far, doing what may be economically optimal has proved politically infeasible in most economies. Another strategy, promoting renewable power, is a necessary part of solving the climate problem but will not be enough on its own. Developing economies are adding new coal plants on a scale that still dwarfs the contribution of renewable energy, and those plants will continue churning out more and more emissions for decades to come. 

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