Burning coal is an extremely damaging way to generate electricity. Coal has a very high carbon content, so is a major source of greenhouse gasses. Burning it also results in pollutants that are directly damaging to human health, such as sulphur dioxide. These also create acid rain, which destroys forests and so contributes yet more to climate change. Burning coal also leaves ash, which has to be disposed of. Understandably, there is much discussion of nuclear waste, but there is much less discussion of coal waste, some of which remains on the ground – but most of which is released into the atmosphere.
Coal fuelled the industrial revolution. The UK, US and Germany all have enormous quantities of coal. Because labour was cheap and easy to employ, this also made coal cheap. The increase in miners’ wages – wholly justifiable in human terms – has made coal mines less economic, so in the UK much of the coal is now ‘open cast’. In the US, tops are sliced off mountains and the coal separated from the rock. For this reason, campaigners who complain that wind turbines spoil the view must accept that no fuel source is invisible.
The economic costs of polluting the atmosphere are not borne by the polluter – in economic jargon, ‘the externalities are not internalised’. This obviously makes coal an attractive option for many energy companies. In addition, energy security – the extent to which a country is self-sufficient or has to import its energy – makes coal appealing to countries with major coal reserves. Europe increasingly relies on Russia for its gas, which is politically problematic, and the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute earlier this year put energy security at the top of the political agenda.
Also high on the political agenda is fuel poverty. Those who have to spend more than 10% of their income on fuel are defined as ‘fuel poor’. In the UK, thousands die each year from cold. Many of these tragedies are caused by the price of gas, not electricity, so fuel poverty increases the social and political appeal of coal.
The US gets about half of its electricity from coal, as does Germany. The UK gets about 40%. And major developing nations are adding rapidly to the climate impact of this fuel. China gets 80% of its electricity from coal and India 70%. South Africa gets over 90%.
So can coal be burnt in less damaging ways? It can certainly be used in a more efficient way, by using combined heat and power (CHP) technology. When it is burnt in a power stations, most of the coal’s energy simply goes up the chimney as heat. At the same time, natural gas is used to provide heat for factories, offices and homes. Virtually half of the UK’s total carbon emissions are caused by the provision of heat for buildings. Therefore, wasting heat is stupid. Whenever coal (or gas or oil) is used to generate electricity, the heat should also be used.
Beyond CHP, it may be possible to capture the carbon emissions and store them under ground or under the sea. (This and many of the other points made in this editorial are discussed in Carbon capture and storage.) If it works as expected and hoped, carbon capture and storage (CCS) will prevent up to 90% of the carbon emissions. However, CCS is not a fully proven technology. Therefore, demonstration projects must be funded without further delay.
Burning coal will never be entirely clean, but it can be made much less dirty. CCS can also be used with gas, as is being done in France. If it works as expected, CCS will be an important bridge technology until the world becomes reliant on 100% renewable energy. However, this will not be cheap, particularly since CCS will require new pipelines to transport the carbon dioxide. It is certainly economically preferable to control climate change than not to control it, but this does not mean that it will be economically straightforward. Unless we pay as taxpayers rather than energy users – which is more progressive but seems unlikely, given enormous public deficits in most countries – energy costs will increase substantially as we move to a low carbon economy. So better ways of combating fuel poverty, by improving home insulation, increasing income and guaranteeing lower fuel tariffs for poor households, are essential.
CCS, and the policies being proposed or used by governments to promote it, will be covered extensively by Climate Answers in the future.