As I mentioned yesterday, I am a techno-optimist, which means I am confident that technological progress will continue in coming years and help us gain better control over our environmental impact and create cleaner energy sources. Progress is certainly continuing but there are still some shocking statistics that could bring any optimist back down to earth.
In recent years I have praised the U.S. for using less coal to produce electricity. The U.S. is no longer the biggest polluter in the world – China is. You would think that with the U.S. using less coal, that total coal consumption around the world would be growing more slowly or not at all. After all, the U.S. still consumes a large fraction of the world’s coal. Unfortunately, coal consumption over the last decade has continued to climb. In fact, it is shocking how much more coal is being burned around the world. Check out this article for some details and graphs.
“Only a very small portion of the global public is aware that global coal consumption has advanced by over 50% in the past decade. According to data from the just-released BP Statistical Review, from 2001 through 2011, global consumption of coal rose an astonishing 56%. Using the energy unit Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent), global coal consumption rose 1,343 Mtoe, from 2,381 to 3,724 Mtoe. And this trend shows no sign of slowing down.”
Remember all the stories from a couple years back about how the Chinese were building a new coal power plant every week. I guess this is the result and it is bad news for the environment. In the U.S. almost all metrics of pollution have improved markedly in the last 50 years and by using more natural gas recently, pollution levels could improve even more. Just the opposite is happening in emerging Asian economies like China and India. The pollution is getting out of control. A dark haze (that can be seen by satellite in space!) permanently covers much of these countries year-round. A significant amount of particulate and carbon monoxide pollution reaching the west coast of the U.S. is from Asia, China in particular. If coal use continues to rise as fast as it has in the past ten years, we won’t have to worry about any theoretical future climate warming, the world will be poisoned to death before any of that trouble develops.
It is the reality of energy production. Most people are going to use the cheapest option available. It is hard to blame the people in Asia who are trying to raise their standard of living. Why should they pay higher prices for clean energy when a lot of the rest of the world uses coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels? Even here in Northcentral Wisconsin the Weston power plant uses coal. The fact is, coal is cheap, and unless the supply comes under pressure (as it has in oil a bit in recent years), the price will remain low and there will not be too much hope for a more rapid adoption of alternative energy sources. If the signers of the Kyoto accord cannot reliably cut their emissions, then it is unlikely the developing world will be able to do it either. If even Apple is choosing cheap coal-based electricity in siting their data centers, then we are in trouble. (Aside: Apple is promising to use more alternative energy in the future).
On the techno-optimist side of things, at least there is a little hope for burning coal cleaner. Check this past blog post for some of the positive trends and new technology. Taking most of the crap and carbon dioxide out of the exhaust of industrial plants is within our technological capability, although it will not be cheap.
Have a good Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.