Earth Up! | The ‘Coal’ of the Matter- Coal, Energy and Climate Consequences


Earth Up! is a monthly column by Ayesha Mehrotra that intends to cover varied issues and solutions with respect to environmental sustainability in India.

Coal is a booming energy source all across the world. Formed deep underground over thousands of years of heat and pressure, coal is a carbon-rich black rock that releases energy when burned. It is dominating energy markets, remaking energy landscapes and also influencing climate change all across the world. Coal, despite the escalation of clean-energy policies, is not going away anytime soon. 

If current trends of coal consumption 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. Most of this coal is used in the power/electricity sector, where it accounts for more than 40 percent of global generation capacity, dominating all other forms of energy. By the 1990s, however, natural gas had emerged as a competitive alternative for generating electricity in the developed world, and the coal fever that had been gripping Western capitals started cooling off. Between 2000 and 2008, the use of coal for power generation in OECD countries grew by only four percent, while the use of natural gas increased by 55 percent. Coal’s utilization in developed countries looked like it was falling in terms of future use. 

The rest of the world, however, is moving at a fast rate in the opposite direction. Whereas industrialized countries once embraced coal to diversify their energy supplies, by the 1990s, the developing world was turning to it to answer a different problem: poverty. Energy prices have been rising dramatically for a number of years now, and although we should be wary of predicting the future – much depending on the availability of oil and whether other energy sources can be found – the era of cheap energy may not return. In any event, ecological outcomes require us to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and develop cleaner energy sources, which is likely to further increase prices, at least in the short term.  This hinders other sources of energy to replace coal consumption.

Rapidly growing economies needed more and more electricity, and coal was the cheapest and most practical way to acquire. it. It was not the cleanest energy source, to be sure countries saw pollution as a cost worth incurring in or benefits of a modern economy. Humanity has come a long way since the Industrial Revolution, when sooty skies signaled economic progress. As the developing world industrializes, it is time to re-envision coal, not just as the leading cause of climate change but also as a leading opportunity to fight it.

The Coal Question: Trajectories and Possibilities

Coal was central to the industrial revolution, but in the 20th century it was gradually and increasingly superseded by resources such as oil and gas. However, in recent years coal has become a dominating source of global carbon emissions due to its requirements. Studies show that this trend of rapidly increasing coal-based emissions which is not only restricted to countries such as China, but also utilized by Europe and the United States. The current decade is witnessing a global renaissance of coal majorly driven by poor, fast-growing countries that are relying on coal to satisfy their incremental energy demand. The low price of coal relative to gas and oil has played an important role in accelerating coal consumption since the end of the 1990s. These findings have important implications for climate change mitigation. If the future economic growth of poor countries is mainly fueled and dominated by coal utilization and demand, ambitious mitigation targets are likely to become infeasible. Building new coal power plant capacities will lead to lock-in effects for the next few decades. If that lock-in is to be avoided, international climate policy must find ways to offer viable alternatives to coal for developing countries.

Environment and Health

The kinds of environmental problems that persist and grow at the highest levels of economic development – where population growth rates are low, per capita economic growth is moderate, and substantial investments in pollution control have begun to curb emissions to air, water, and soil of some of the more easily captured pollutants – tend to be those that (a) arise from renewable resource demands driven beyond thresholds of sustainability by the growth of prosperity itself or (b) are legacies of past carelessness in forms that are very costly to ameliorate after the fact and for which the “polluter pays” principle fails because the polluters have disappeared; or (c) arise from widely used, hard-to-replace productive technologies in ways that are resistant to inexpensive technological fixes; or  (d) tend to export their environmental costs and risks in space and time to an extent that makes difficult their assessment and internalization through price or policy.

When coal is burned it releases a number of airborne toxins and pollutants. They include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Health impacts can range from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death. Fly ash produced in coal plants is extremely harmful and causes massive amounts of pollution. The utility of water in thermal power stations is also at an extremely high rate. These health consequences could impact vulnerable communities which lead to drastic social and geopolitical consequences. 

Economic Instruments and Models

The world’s existing coal plants are the low-hanging fruit, imply improving basic maintenance and replacing old turbine blades can make coal plants two percent more efficient and emit four to six percent less carbon dioxide. Those reductions can add up. If China were to make just its least-efficient coal plants two percent more efficient, the country would slash emissions by an estimated 120 megatons annually—nearly as much as the United Kingdom emits every year.

Effective climate change policy would change the decision calculus for these activities to promote more efficient generation and use of energy, lower carbon-intensity of energy, and a more carbon-lean economy. There are three ways to accomplish this goal: (1) mandate that businesses and individuals change their technology and emissions performance; (2) subsidize business and individual investment in and use of lower-emitting goods and services; or (3) price the greenhouse gas externality commensurate with the harm that such emissions impose on society. Public and political interest in a market based policy instrument may respond positively to the threat of a high-cost regulatory alternative. Some in the environmental community may also support a cost-effective policy if it enables a more ambitious environmental goal than is possible under a conventional regulatory mandate. At the same time, it is important to recognize that those market-based policy instruments that raise revenues for government- including taxes and auctioned allowances which can have their own political attraction, particularly at a time of chronic government budgetary deficits.

Coal: Conclusion of Ideas

An incentive for switching to alternative sources of energy could lie in policy objectives other than climate policy, such as those addressing local air pollution, energy security, and energy access. Studies and literature available make it evident that coal use and related emissions have increased dramatically in the last decade. Although the global energy system showed a decarbonizing trend before the turn of this century, we have observed a constant carbonization of the global energy system since then, driven mainly by coal use in Asia. This development is in stark contrast to expectations formed a decade ago. (Drake, 2009). 

The coal, energy and climate change debate is a complex one, with social, ecological, empirical, political, economic and environmental narratives contribute greatly to the the vast outcomes of how coal-produced energy contributes to climate conditions across various parts of the world. Economic instruments, pricing markets and policy agendas are important in outlining the demand and supply chain of resources. What can be used how and where, and at what cost are extremely significant details to consider, because they help in understanding the major reasons for the way trajectories progress over a course of time. Natural resource consumption have social, political and economic imperatives, leading to ecological and environmental outcomes alongside it. The increasing trends in coal production and consumption seem purely for economic and political reasons, as coal is a cheap resource with high capacity for energy release. The clarity found in literature is that coal is a political, economic and environmental subject, which cannot be isolated or compartmentalized. It influences large chunks of the world, it is a promoter and driver or industrial and economic development, alongside impacting societies in different ways (urban vs. rural). Strengthening policy and implementation becomes integral in recognizing the impacts of coal and energy influencing climate change. 

Ayesha Mehrotra is a Volunteer at One Future Collective.
Featured image source: The Economic Times

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