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How to Get Off Coal

by Jim Hansen

(1) Urgency of coal moratorium
A successful strategy to avoid climate calamity must start with a moratorium, and eventual phaseout, of coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2. Other actions are needed, including a carbon price that encourages transition to fuels of the future, discourages scrounging for every last drop of oil, and stymies budding efforts to squeeze oil from the dirtiest fossil deposits (tar shale and its ilk). Also improved agricultural and forestry practices will be needed to draw atmospheric CO2 down. But the urgent, essential action is a coal moratorium.

Side benefits of phasing out coal emissions, for human health and the environment, are so great that it will be feasible to spread a no-dirty-coal energy strategy world-wide once it is started. The West must initiate the moratorium, because the West is responsible for most of the excess CO2 in the air today. We have the potential for an immediate moratorium, and the West has much to gain from early adoption and technology refinement.

Energy experts agree that efficiency and renewable energies can handle near-term needs for energy growth in the United States. New coal plants are being built only because coal is cheap (as long as it receives government subsidies and is not forced to pay for environmental and health damages), because utilities make more money if they sell more energy, and because the political clout of King Coal stymies adoption of national energy policies in the public interest.

(2) Leadership
Political leaders, in both parties, do not yet appreciate fundamental data such as the bar graph of carbon content of individual fossil fuels. It is not rocket science. We cannot prevent use of easily minable reserves of oil or capture tailpipe emissions. But oil reserves are finite, prices are rising, and emissions will peak and decline. The larger CO2 source, the one we must cut off at the pass, is coal (and unconventional fossil fuels, squeezing of oil from tar shale and its ilk).

Responses from these three states failed to identify needed leadership. Minnesotans tell me that Pawlenty placed constraints on power plants, making it unlikely that Big Stone II will be built, but he could not go further without offending neighboring governors of his own party. We can reserve judgment in this case, but solution of the climate problem can only be obtained with an unambiguous renunciation of coal except where CO2 emissions are captured and sequestered.

Lest you get discouraged, let me point out two examples of stellar leadership. Last year Florida Governor (Republican) Charlie Crist responded to a similar plea with force and clarity – he canceled Florida’s plans for new coal-fired power plants. And well he may have – most of Florida is as flat as a pancake up to the ocean’s edge.

And there is the Governor of Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, perhaps the most courageous of all – living in a lion’s pit of well-oiled coal-fired legislators, she came out firmly against new coal-fired power plants on the grounds that they will push climate past the tipping point and destroy the future of our children and grandchildren!! In her final term as Governor, she is a potential candidate for Vice President or for Senator to replace retiring Sam Brownback.

A recent New York Times editorial on global warming concluded: “…Above all, it will require
determined and courageous leadership from a president capable of conveying hard truths and
asking a lot of the country. Assuming that Mr. McCain and the two Democratic candidates mean what they say, on this issue at least, we seem assured of such a president.”

“Assuming they mean what they say” is the crux of the matter. How can you determine if they
possess understanding and “courageous leadership”? Ask them point blank if they support an
immediate moratorium on new dirty-coal power plants and phase-out of existing dirty-coal power
plants (none of them has, as yet). Ask publicly and broadcast the response. Because, if they are not ready and willing to act, perusal of fossil carbon reservoirs and junior high school mathematics will together show that Yogi Berra was right: “You can’t get there from here.”

(3) Public Support: Tax and Dividend
Last week the Energy Secretary for the United States, before the House of Representatives,
answering questions about global warming and energy policy, provided a response that was so
ignorant and foolish as to suggest that he has been living on another planet or is stone deaf to
scientific information. He said that the appropriate policy response is for the government to open
up more public land for mining, to open off-shore areas for drilling, to open the Arctic National
Wildlife Reserve, and to encourage extraction of oil from tar shale.

The danger is that such egregiously bad policy, bad for all but the short-term benefit of special
interests, might be packaged to sound logical to the public. This danger will increase when a rising carbon price – essential for solving the climate problem – is instituted. For a carbon price to be effective it must, perforce, be large enough to cause a big impact on the public – otherwise it will not help bring about consumer changes that are needed to reduce emissions fast enough. But it must be implemented with care and foresight.

For this reason I strongly favor a “tax and dividend” approach. The entire carbon tax should be
given back to the public, an equal amount to each person. No bureaucracy is needed to figure this out. If an early carbon tax averages say $1200 per person (it can be collected in various ways – at the well-head, carbon emission permit auctions, etc.) a monthly $100 deposit can be made automatically in everyone’s bank account.

Although energy prices will rise, you can bet your bottom dollar that lower and middle income
people will figure out how to reduce energy use enough that, overall, they come out ahead. And in doing so, moving to more energy-efficient products, they will spur economic activity and create jobs. The tax-and-dividend approach not only minimizes public backlash against climate and energy policies, it also has the characteristics needed to make those policies work.

Footnote: I suggest limiting the number of dividends to four per family. Climate scientists have no special expertise related to the family planning issue, but common sense dictates against a policy that stimulates population growth.

(4) Dilemma
Inability to influence governors, and the finite number of hours in a day, raises a question about the effectiveness of opposing individual power plants. The dramatic change of emissions that is
needed requires national policy changes, and that requires public pressure, and/or pressure from enlightened “captains of industry”. Are there better ways to inform those players?

On the other hand, a single large coal-fired power plant burns ~ 100 rail cars of coal in a day, each with ~ 100 tons of coal. Multiply this by ~3 to get the mass of CO2 produced and by the number of days in 50-75 years, the typical expected lifetime of a power plant. Thus construction of a single coal-fired power plant obviates actions by millions of people to reduce their emissions. Blocking a single coal-fired power plant is important in itself, and it may help lead to a tipping point by demonstrating that efficiency and renewable energies can carry the load.

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Posted by: Ivona Vujica on 30 May 08

Jim, good article. Well done WC.

If you want to learn more about the basics of the coal situation in the US (production/consumption, etc.) I would also point you to Richard Heinberg's piece (from his new book on coal) of last week over at TOD:

Posted by: Prof. Goose on 1 Jun 08

This sentence about oil is spot on:

We cannot prevent use of easily minable reserves of oil or capture tailpipe emissions. But oil reserves are finite, prices are rising, and emissions will peak and decline.

Hansen recognises that we can't proactively reduce oil consumption below the depletion envelope. Hardly anyone with Hansen's gravitas even recognises the envelope let alone such secondarily characteristics of it. Well done!

Posted by: Chris Vernon on 2 Jun 08

Chris -
Dr. Hansen's point about the 'depletion envelope' of oil is a very provocative idea. However true it may be, there are probably good reasons to endeavor consumption changes - aside from those associated with climte change. Combusting hydrocarbons creates all sorts of pollutants that disproportionately impact low income communities (they tend to be the ones near freeways and high truck-traffic industrial areas). In addition to the medly of 'traditional' pollution issues are the ancillary environmental impacts associated with drilling, shipping, refining, etc. Add to that the national security issues and perverse economics associated with deriving so much of our oil and gas supplies from beyond our borders. What a mess! We may indeed be on a glide-path to the inevitable, but if these other pressures begin to have more heft, they may serve to change our oil and gas consumption patterns in much the same way that electricity costs in the western US served to reduce energy use and associated emissions.

Posted by: Margaret Bruce on 2 Jun 08

You know, and perhaps we forget, that coal used to be an environmental disaster. These type of plants produced acid rain with a recorded, incredible pH of about 3.0 (normal rain pH is about 7.2). This destroyed and killed vast sections of forest. The air and water don’t recognize national or even county boundaries. A drop of water evaporated from the ocean, fall as rain inland, runoff back to the ocean to be evaporated and precipitated somewhere else could be about 2 weeks time. With old style coal I believe this acid rain was due to nitrous and sulfuric acid produced by the burning and mixing with hydrogen ions. Now, if this is a fact, I would assume the claims about carbon dioxide are probably true also. I’m a student at Portland State University and around here we don’t have to deal with dirty coal, but we do have to deal with bad policy. Recently “Wired” magazine declared the most friendly climate change policy is logging all “old growth” forests; replant them; and then log every fifty-five years. Some politicians may actually believe these twisted facts. We at the University wrote a blog and survey on this nonsense and if you care to read more it is at:

Posted by: David Best on 7 Jun 08

As point of information, Alcoa recently claimed that if the USA simply got halfway to Europe and Japans aluminum can recycling rate( today we're at 50 pct about, and the others are around 75-80 pct, that 2 large scale coal powerplants currently in operation here could be permanently closed.
It is also about doing everything possible to curtail power demand--

Posted by: geoff thomas on 7 Jun 08


Posted by: 大仙 on 15 Jun 08



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