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Old King Coal: Why the World Needs a Coal Power Moratorium
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By Worldchanging ally James Hansen:

Scientific data reveal that the Earth is close to dangerous climate change, to tipping points that could produce irreversible effects. Global warming of 0.6°C in the past 30 years has brought the Earth’s temperature back to about the peak level of the Holocene, the current period of climate stability, now of nearly 12,000 year duration, and more warming is “in the pipeline” due to human-made greenhouse gases already in the air. The Earth’s history tells us that the world is approaching a dangerous level of greenhouse gases, a level that would produce accelerating sea level rise, extermination of many animal and plant species, and intensification of regional climate extremes, including floods, storms, droughts and forest fires. It is urgent to slow emissions, as another decade of increasing emissions would practically guarantee elimination of Arctic sea ice, accelerating disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and regional climate deterioration during coming decades.

The most important time-critical action needed to avert climate disasters concerns coal. Consider: 1) one-quarter of fossil fuel CO2 emission remains in the air for more than 500 years, 2) conventional oil and gas reserves are sufficient to take atmospheric CO2 at least to the vicinity of the “dangerous” level, and it is impractical to capture their CO2 emission as it is mostly from small sources (vehicles), 3) coal reserves are far greater than oil and gas reserves, and most coal use is at power plants, where it is feasible to capture and permanently sequester the CO2 underground (CCS = carbon capture and sequestration). Clear implication: the only practical way to keep CO2 below or close to the “dangerous level” is to phase out coal use during the next few decades, except where CO2 is captured and sequestered.

The resulting imperative is an immediate moratorium on additional coal-fired power plants without CCS. A surge in global coal use in the last few years has converted a potential slowdown of CO2 emissions into a more rapid increase. But the main reason for the proposed moratorium is that a CO2 molecule from coal, in effect, is more damaging than a CO2 molecule from oil. CO2 in readily available oil almost surely will end up in the atmosphere, it is only a question of when, and when does not matter much, given its long lifetime. CO2 in coal does not need to be released to the atmosphere, but if it is, it cannot be recovered and will make disastrous climate change a near certainty.

The moratorium must begin in the West, which is responsible for three-quarters of climate change (via 75% of the present atmospheric CO2 excess, above the pre-industrial level), despite large present CO2 emissions in developing countries. The moratorium must extend to developing countries within a decade, but that will not happen unless developed countries fulfill their moral obligation to lead this moratorium. If Britain should initiate this moratorium, there is a strong possibility of positive feedback, a domino effect, with Germany, Europe, and the United States following, and then, probably with technical assistance, developing countries.

A spreading moratorium on construction of dirty (no CCS) coal plants is the sine quo non for stabilizing climate and preserving creation. It would need to be followed by phase-out of existing dirty coal plants in the next few decades, but would that be so difficult? Consider the other benefits: cleanup of local pollution, conditions in China and India now that greatly damage human health and agriculture, and present global export of pollution, including mercury that is accumulating in fish stock throughout the ocean.

There are long lists of things that people can do to help mitigate climate change. But for reasons quantified in my most recent publication, a moratorium on coal-fired power plants without CCS is by far the most important action that needs to be pursued. It should be the rallying issue for young people. The future of the planet in their lifetime is at stake. This is not an issue for only Bangladesh and the island nations, but for all humanity and other life on the planet. It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants. No doubt our poor communication of the matter deserves much of the blame. Suggestions for how to improve that communication are needed.

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"But the main reason for the proposed moratorium is that a CO2 molecule from coal, in effect, is more damaging than a CO2 molecule from oil. CO2 in readily available oil almost surely will end up in the atmosphere, it is only a question of when, and when does not matter much, given its long lifetime. CO2 in coal does not need to be released to the atmosphere, but if it is, it cannot be recovered and will make disastrous climate change a near certainty."

Statements like the preceding make it abundantly clear that the authors of this article either have no idea what they're talking about, or no idea how to articulate themselves. Either way, the competence of authors comes into question.

Can someone perhaps explain to me why CO2 from coal is somehow different or worse than CO2 from oil? For that matter, can someone maybe just translate that quote into proper english that actually parses into something meaningful? Thanks...

Posted by: Daniel on 8 Jul 07

Perhaps the commenter above doesn't realize that coal-fired electrical generation contributes 40% of ALL CO2 -- roughly equal to the transportation sector. Plus 66% of all mercury (brain damage, water contamination), and 33% of all SOx and 22% of NOx. Burning coal produces 3 times the annual amount of municipal waste, and uses HALF the water in the U.S. It's absurd. So adding some 150 new coal plants scheduled to be built in the U.S. is crazy. And coal plants aren't cheap! Gasified coal has come in at 9-11 cents/kWh (see or PLUS 5 cents/kWh for only 30% capture and transportation -- and since ONLY 3 million tons of CO2, which is less than half the amount of CO2 produced by a single average-size coal plant in a single year -- is currently being "sequestered." Does it leak? What are the risks? Do you want to live above millions of tons of CO2? In Lake Nyos Africa 1700 people were instantly suffocated when a large volume of CO2 was released from a deep water lake. Because CO2 displaces air, every human and animal was instantly suffocated. Capturing, transporting and storing all that CO2 will require a Rube Goldberg-type infrastructure of pipes and pressurization stations roughly analogous to the system we currently have that delivers oil - and roughly the same amount (see the MIT study The Future of Coal). This is INSANE. Energy efficiency costs 0.5-2 cents/kWh. California uses 44% LESS energy per person than the average in the U.S. Let's face it: the U.S. Congress is a lagging indicator that has gotten fat and stupid on fossil fuel campaign money.

Posted by: Nancy LaPlaca on 8 Jul 07

First of all, thank you Professor Hansen for your contribution to worldchanging. Comment 1 (by Daniel) was, though rudely articulated, not wholly answered by comment 2 (nancy). And the same question remains, if the actual CO2 molecule is more damaging than why is that? And why exactly is it that the conversion of oil to atmospheric CO2 is "innevitable." Is Dr. Hansen speaking of existing oil wells or exploration of yet untapped oil fields? What is the difference between an untapped oil field and an un-mined coal deposit?

I wonder if Professor Hansen or someone else could address so-called "Clean Coal" and how it fits in to this picture?

Thank you

Posted by: Chris on 8 Jul 07

Sorry, Nancy, but the first comment is completely valid. The paragraph in question does not make any sense. How is a molecule of carbon dioxide from coal any worse than one from oil? Your argument may be correct, that producing one joule of energy from coal is much worse than producing the same energy from oil. But nothing you said explains the article's premise that uncaptured CO2 from coal is worse, mole for mole, than uncaptured CO2 from oil.
Coincidentally, just because the first poster and I would like an article to make logical, grammatical sense, it doesn't mean we support fossil fuel use, or killing kittens, or any other societal evil.

Posted by: Ed Beaty on 8 Jul 07

As this article mentions the possibility of Britain leading in this effort, would it not make sense to use the government e-petition website to gather support?

Posted by: Phil on 9 Jul 07

There is no direct difference between the effects of CO2 produced by burning oil & gas and CO2 produced by burning coal. Hansen's wording is unfortunate, because it implies that there is, and it's the sort of thing that denialists will seize upon (out of context) to claim that the scientists involve don't understand science.

From skimming his article (the "my most recent publication" link), I think what he was trying to convey was this:

1. Burning all the world's easily accessible oil and natural gas would push the atmospheric CO2 to 450 parts per million (ppm).
2. This is a dangerous level, but probably not catastrophic; going beyond that level (e.g., to 500 or 600 ppm) might well produces catastrophic effects.

3. It's not practical to prevent burning all that oil and gas, in part because it's so easily accessible, and in part because it gets burned in so many, many different ways and places, some of them not easily replaceable (e.g., airplanes and ships, and arguably cars in many parts of the world).

4. Coal, on the other hand, is really only usable in large power plants. (We long ago phased out most coal-burning trains and ships.) But any coal burned in addition to all that oil and natural gas would push the atmospheric CO2 beyond 450 ppm.

5. So, assuming that we can't prevent oil and natural gas from being used, it makes sense to concentrate on restricting coal-fired power plants, especially as we can produce power without using coal.

Really, what he's assuming is that the existing, readily accessible oil and gas will be used, so its resulting CO2 is a forgone conclusion. Anything produced by burning coal would be extra on top of this, increasing the danger of catastrophic effects, but is more easily avoided. That's the only way in which coal-produced CO2 is "different" from oil&gas-produced CO2.[*]

[*] Imagine you're lying in a tub, and someone is pouring a bucket of water into the tub. The amount of water is not quite enough (you think) to cover your mouth and nose, so you'll probably survive. Now another person appears in the doorway, with a bigger bucket of water, and proposes pouring from that bucket as well... It's still just water; it just happens that the extra amount from the new source would put you into dangerous terrritory.

Posted by: Peter Erwin on 9 Jul 07

Indeed, CO2 in the air does not behave differently depending on its source. However, per energy coal produces more CO2, because coal consists mostly of carbon, while oil and gas are compounds that consist mostly of carbonhydrates, burning that produces more energy, producing CO2 and HO2.

I agree on the criticism against storing CO2 underground. Just using other sources of energy is preferable to creating a reservoir that hopefully stores the CO2.

It is sad that current research funds that goes to alternative energy is still too little. Also, i would reckon that more expensive green energy is better then cheap grey ones. Really, it should have more then the priority that the Apollo program had in the past.

Posted by: Jasper on 9 Jul 07

This is an important discussion and I would hate to see it completely deteriorate into a parsimonious dissection of one particular metaphor.

The question would seem to be what should be done about the threat of more pollution from using coal. Dr. Hansen proposes a moratorium, which requires either voluntary or governmental restraint.

But, ask yourself, why do investors want to build the 100 or so coal-fired, electric power plants now in the hopper? (It's a rhetorical question with an implicit answer: investors want to make money.) It would seem a healthier choice to lessen the incentive to make more dirty money.

One could continue to deny the risk to the Planet of anthropogenic emissions, but one would be foolish to invest capital in a project that would loose money because of implementation of a pollution tax.

Acting upon a recommendation made by Al Gore during testimony in March before a joint committee hearing, Representative John Dingell, (D-MI) plans to introduce such a pollution tax.

Now the New York Times suggests that he is doing this to diminish the momentum to pass new CAFE standards for the first time in 30 years, new standards that at least one poll shows that 70% of Americans favor.

Such a plan does have the potential to backfire. Others in Congress, who recognize that scientists like James Hansen are trying to warn us, could produce some responsible legislation from such an initiative.

The question then is whether there would be enough momentum in Congress to override the veto from the Oily Administration.

Posted by: jcwinnie on 9 Jul 07

Hansen may have meant that oil and natural gas deposits have a much shorter geological lifetime than do coal deposits, and so we might as well burn the oil and gas since it would all escape and naturally oxidize into CO2 relatively soon anyway. (In fact it is better to burn natural gas than to simply release it, because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than is CO2.) If so then he should cite some sources for that assertion.

If instead he meant that there are no short-term alternatives to petroleum and natural gas, then that is not correct. If we wanted to we could choose to stop using oil and gas very soon. For example, synthetic liquid hydrocarbon vehicles fuels (Diesel, gasoline) can be made through electrolysis and Fischer-Tropsch processes using atmospheric CO2, water, and any carbon-neutral energy source (nuclear, hydro, wind, Solar). A back-of-envelope estimate suggests that synthetic fuels made using nuclear power would cost roughly $6 per gallon, which is about what some European consumers already pay including taxes.

Posted by: richard schumacher on 9 Jul 07

In response to the first comment from Daniel, I think that what what the author is trying to say is that we should take take all of the earth's recoverable oil being consumed as a given. This makes sense, because we will continue to produce oil as fast as we can despite any deliberate conservation efforts because of growing demand in the developing nations, and when geologic depletion starts to kick in soon (google "peak oil" if you don't know what this is), we will be reducing our oil consumption far faster than we could ever hope to do willingly. Therefore, there is no point in trying to curb our oil consumption; it is beyond our control, and will happen naturally whether we like it or not. However, the world still has hundreds of years of reserves of coal at our current rates of use. Unfortunately, if we try to replace our dwindling oil supplies with coal-to-liquid technology, these hundreds of years of coal could be spewed into the atmosphere in dozens of years instead.

Posted by: David VonDenver on 9 Jul 07

Richard wrote:

"If instead he meant that there are no short-term alternatives to petroleum and natural gas, then that is not correct."

This is absolutely correct. There are no short-term alternatives to petroleum and natural gas. No combination of alternative fuels will be able to replace oil on the scale that we use it, and even if we could it would not be short-term, it would take years to ramp up production. Using the fischer-tropsch process with atmospheric CO2 would be a great idea if it is feasable, but it would not be a short term solution. It would take collosal amounts of energy, probably an order of magnitude more energy that our present total energy consumption. America's biggest obstacle to solving our energy problems is the fallacy that we can continue living the way we do if we just find another way to power our cars.

Posted by: David VonDenver on 9 Jul 07

"Years" is short-term, given that the problem will be with us for centuries at least. We don't have to replace all petroleum and natural gas products with carbon-neutral synthetics, just enough to make a useful difference. Yes, even so it will be a big project.

And yes, many people don't grasp the scale of the problems we face; for example, those who think that it is physically possible for us (Earth, that is, not merely America) to conserve our way to a future in which nine billion people all enjoy a high standard of living. For that, Earth *does* need nearly an order-of-magnitude increase in energy consumption.

Posted by: richard schumacher on 9 Jul 07

Three of the Democrats running for President have called for what Dr. Hansen is promoting in this piece: John Edwards, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson. Hopefully we'll elect one of them President!

Posted by: Asa on 9 Jul 07

For those people who don't believe in global warming, aren't coal plants pretty big air pollution generators? Wouldn't it be a good thing if the latest and greatest in technology was used in the construction of new coal power plants just for the reduction in air pollution alone?
And, I agree with some of the other commenters with regard to the fact that the essential problem resides in the consumption patterns of this country. We're the biggest generators of CO2 on the planet (although I thought I had read recently that we'd been passed up by China), but we simply don't want to change our habits. Even if global warming doesn't exist, fossil fuels are finite. We've only got so much air, land, and water, too, for that matter. Not much to be done if we use it all up.

Posted by: marga on 9 Jul 07

In my defense, note that my "Old King Coal" was written for my primarily scientific e-mail list (albeit, I add anyone to the list who requests it), although I have no objections to my e-mails being posted anywhere.

Here was my response to a couple of queries of the same sort that came directly to me:

I should have made the rationale more explicit. We cannot tell Saudi Arabia that it must not mine it's oil; indeed, surely they will do so. So by using oil more cautiously all we can do is delay by a few years how soon the CO2 molecules from oil are put in the air. That doesn't help much, as a large fraction of the resulting CO2 stays in the air 'forever', more than 500 years. The same is not true for coal. If we avoid burning the coal now, until carbon capture technology is available, the CO2 produced in burning coal will never get into the air.

[I can assure you that carbon capture will never be practical on a vehicle. The mass of CO2 is 44/12, more than 3 and one-half times, greater than the mass of gasoline in the tank. Can you imagine the expense and impracticality of trying to capture and store that mass somewhere?]

The readily available oil has enough CO2 to take us close to the vicinity of the 'dangerous' level of atmospheric CO2. The CO2 molecules from coal are different in the sense that it is practical to capture them when they are burned. But if we burn them with the old technology, that possibility is lost to us forever - they will be put in the air, practically beyond our reach.

To say it in a slightly different way: the readily available oil is going to put atmospheric CO2 into the vicinity of the 'dangerous' level, and it is unlikely that we could prevent the oil states from selling the oil and finding customers. Thus the CO2 from coal becomes critical, because it is feasible for it to be captured.

I hope this makes the rationale clearer.

Jim Hansen

Posted by: Jim Hansen on 9 Jul 07

Wow. It's _never_ going to happen, so I guess we are all sunk?

Posted by: Kevitivity on 9 Jul 07

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is hopeless. Last year Earth burned a bit more than six billion tons of coal (US DOE figure), which produced about 2500 cubic miles of CO2. Capturing, transporting, and (semi-)permanently storing a significant fraction of that much CO2 is not merely uneconomical: it's impossible.

Posted by: richard schumacher on 9 Jul 07

I've read enough on climate change to have absolute confidence in anything Dr. Hansen says. If he identifies a moratorium on traditional coal power plants as the crucial step to take, then I'm sure he's correct. He's not the only one saying it, anyway.

So how do we make that the lightning rod of climate change activism? Is there a "ban coal" movement? Are environmental groups picking this up as a priority?

While more of us understand the basics behind climate change, most of us have a poor understanding of how the global greenhouse gas pie is sliced up, and an equally poor knowledge of the amount of oil, natural gas, and coal reserves in the earth, and what that tells us about future emissions. Is that the next, important step in public education? Could Worldchanging and the folks at RealClimate make a start by addressing this?

Posted by: Catherine Jansen on 14 Jul 07



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