Fight for global warming must focus on coal
Mar 19, 2011

Fight for global warming must focus on coal

Coal is sometimes disregarded in global warming discussions in favor of targeting oil and natural gas. However, oil and gas have various detractors that over time are going to provide a disincentive to their future prevalence.  With coal, however, it is actually quite an reasonable fuel source with the major exception of its contributions to global warming. There must thus be a special focus on coal because it isn't going to get negative attention in other ways.

It should be established at the onset that coal is very significant. It currently contributes roughly 20% of global greenhouse gases. It provides 50% of US electricity and 80% in China. The geographic coincidence is that the US, China and India all have vast reserves of coal and can last for many generational development cycles of coal powered industry. As these monstrous energy consumption countries grow, it is going to be overwhelmingly in coal.

Coal is relatively very cheap as an energy source; indeed, much cheaper than oil and can be done at a much smaller scale than needed for nuclear. Wind and solar are not even close in price, currently (including effects of coal subsidies). The price is also quite stable in time and unlikely to experience large fluctuations. The issue of air quality (while not insignificant) is one that can be solved with technology and regulations. In short, coal is very attractive were it not for its effect in greenhouse gases.

Contrast this with oil. The major problem of course is that oil supplies are quickly depleting and future costs are going to skyrocket as they already have over the last fifteen years. These issues of peak oil provided the dominant disincentive to future oil based energy consumption: the problem is abated because oil production will decline and there is little that can be done to reverse this geologically based fact. There is debate over the relative speeds of global warming and of peak oil and hence whether one should aggressively combat oil production sooner; however, in the long run this problem is if not solved then at least reduced.

Oil is also a much more negatively perceived commodity in the public consciousness. There are problems of significant price fluctuations such as the 2008 spike to $150/barrel that have big effects on the market. The issue of dependency on middle eastern oil is a huge issue for isolationist in the US. Many wars are fought in countries whose geopolitical significance is largely tied to oil. The BP oil spill in the gulf of Mexico was the worst environmental disaster in American history and demonstrates the non-global warming problems associated with oil. In short, there are quite a few significant problems with oil entirely outside of global warming issues.

This becomes a question of strategy. On the one hand, there are synergies with latent public opinion against oil as an energy source. This will only increase as prices (and potentially corresponding conflict) rise. This can be used, as I have previously argued, to couple global warming with peak oil and these other issues to present a more comprehensive and robust case. On the other hand, given the relatively weaker justifications on the coal issue, it necessitates increased attention to this issue. Regardless of public strategy, coal should be considered an important goal in the environmental movement.

Fighting against coal use does have one important advantage over oil. Namely, electricity is fungible: it matters not whether a unit of electricity comes from coal, solar, nuclear or anything else to the end user. In contrast, most applications of oil (such as gasoline) need to be of that form and that form alone. Coal is thus a much more zero sum issue on the greenhouse gas front than oil for one can transform a dollar invested in coal infrastructure to one of a renewable infrastructure while maintaining the same end user usage (adjusting for price differences). Cutting greenhouse gases from, say, flying simply means flying less (ignoring organic liquid fuels such as ethanol for the moment). Cutting greenhouse gases from, say, TV watching doesn't necessarily mean curbing TV watching, it can mean transforming from coal to renewable or nuclear electricity production. This is a big advantage that motivates targeting coal.

Coal facts:

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