|Above: Pieces of coal are used as part of a Polish display during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katorice, Poland. Image credit: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.|
The irony is running thick this week as coal—the most climate-unfriendly of fossil fuels, and an energy source in decline—finds itself in the spotlight. The 24th annual United Nations Conference of Parties (COP24) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is meeting this week and next in the city of Katowice in southern Poland, a region where coal remains a dominant force in the local economy. And on Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose loosening regulations for new coal plants, at a time when global demand for coal has been sagging.
In his opening remarks, Polish president Andrzej Duda struggled to reconcile the fact that coal use is at loggerheads with a world moving toward carbon-free energy. “Katowice is currently one of the greenest cities in Poland, where forests occupy over 40% of the total urban area,” Duda said. “Is it not surprising, but concurrently symbolic, that this year's COP24 conference will take place precisely in a venue of an old coal mine?”
By juxtaposing forests and coal, Duda seemed to be implying that coal use is not incompatible with healthy ecosystems. Of course, the global concern with coal isn’t where mines have been abandoned—it’s where they are humming along, spewing out carbon dioxide that will remain in the air for many hundreds of years. Coal produces almost twice as much carbon dioxide per unit energy as does natural gas (though leakage from natural gas infrastructure adds methane to the air), so even within the world of fossil fuels, coal is an overachiever in a very dangerous way.
|Figure 1. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (L) and Polish president Andrzej Duda (R) during the joint press conference at the COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland on Monday, December 3, 2018. Image credit: Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images.|
The city of Katowice’s welcome to the COP24 delegates only thickened the irony, with the region's coal-based culture playing a central role, as reported by weather.com’s Kait Parker.
Duda pointed out that Poland’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped some 30% since 1988, citing “efficient coal technologies.” While this drop is undoubtedly a good thing for climate, it largely reflects the inefficient state of Polish energy use in 1988 and the collapse of Eastern European economies in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Other remarks by Duda, as reported by the New York Times, point to a looming concern going forward: “There is no plan today to fully give up on coal….Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them.”
Indeed, the world has yet to fully grapple with the enormous pressure to use fossil fuel reserves that are already far more than enough to push the world well beyond 2°C of warming over preindustrial conditions, which would raise the odds of catastrophic climate-change impacts. It runs counter to human nature to “leave it in the ground” when fossil fuel is such a powerful, reliable, and well-established source of energy. Yet “leave it in the ground” we must—or at least a big part of it—if we want to preserve any real chance of avoiding climatic disasters.
|Figure 2. Delegates attend the opening ceremony of the COP 24 United Nations climate change conference on December 3, 2018, in Katowice, Poland. The two-week conference is taking place in the wake of recent scientific reports that point to an even more dire situation of global warming and its consequences. Image credit: Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.|
Can coal be truly clean?
What about “clean” coal (or “beautiful, clean coal,” as U.S. president Donald Trump put it in his 2018 State of the Union address)? That phrase was long used to denote technologies that reduced the amount of noxious byproducts of coal use, such as soot and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants are a big part of why outdoor air pollution takes more than 4 million lives per year, so reducing them is clearly a good thing for human health, especially in the vicinity of coal plants. While coal plants have become somewhat more efficient in the last several decades, Reuters reported this week that technologies designed to reduce smog-producing nitrogen oxide at two North Carolina power plants actually led to greater emissions.
The much bigger challenge has been to reduce the amount of coal-related carbon dioxide, which is the longer-term threat to global climate. If someone refers to “clean coal” without making this distinction, they are conflating two issues that are both hugely important but quite different.
|Figure 3. The chimney stacks of the Capitol Power Plant, a natural-gas- and coal-burning power plant that provides steam and chilled water for heating and cooling of the U.S. Capitol and surrounding buildings, is pictured in Washington, DC, on August 22, 2018. Image credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.|
The holy grail of low-carbon coal has long been carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the idea of capturing carbon produced from fossil fuel use and storing in the ground before it enters the atmosphere. Two natural gas facilities have injected millions of tons of carbon dioxide into aquifers below the North Sea and the Mediterranean, but as of 2018 only two commercial-scale coal power plants were carrying out CCS: the Boundary Dam project in Saskatchewan and the Petra Nova facility near Houston. In both cases, the stored carbon is being injected into nearby oil wells to boost their output, which splashes cold water on potential benefits for climate change.
To employ CCS in a big way, coal plants would need to reliably and affordably separate out carbon dioxide from their waste stream. One long-studied approach is called integrated gasification and combined cycle (IGCC). Instead of burning the coal directly, a gasification plant heats the fuel to a high temperature with a dash of oxygen. The resulting gases are either burned or further refined into synfuels—synthetic versions of oil-based fuels. An IGCC plant then uses the waste heat to make steam, which drives a second turbine. As of 2018 there were a handful of pilot IGCC plants in operation across the world, mainly in Europe, the United States, and China.
What’s yet to happen is IGCC-CCS, where the coal plants are not only more efficient but actually store their carbon. Despite many attempts, including two aborted U.S. projects, no major power plant has yet to combine IGCC and CCS. The evolving economics of coal are adding headwinds to any such effort. The world’s first industrial-scale IGCC–CCS plant may end up being China’s GreenGen, a multi-decade, multi-stage effort designed to culminate in the 2020s with an 800-megawatt plant that sequesters more than 80% of its carbon emissions. The remaining 20% would still be a lot of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, though.
|Figure 4. A huge national march called Claim the Climate took place in Brussels on Sunday, December 2, 2018. Around 75,000 protesters stressed the importance of limiting climate change to a maximum of 1.5°C. Image credit: Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images.|
Do we need coal anymore?
Some parts of the global economy will be tougher than others to turn into carbon-neutral enterprises. Aviation is a particular challenge, since there’s no viable replacement for jet fuel aside from biofuels that might eventually make up a small piece of that pie. However, coal is used mainly for power generation, and that’s one place where fossil fuels are no longer truly essential. Wind and solar power are being rapidly scaled up across the world, and there’s no technical reason why that trend can’t be accelerated greatly. Nuclear power has its own environmental issues, but it is close to carbon neutral (especially compared to coal). Likewise, although hydropower can be devastating to local ecosystems, it is also a nearly carbon-neutral source of energy.
Between existing hydropower and nuclear facilities, the rapid increase in wind and solar power, and more efficient use of energy, coal use has been on the downswing in recent years. Global demand for coal dropped by 4.2% from 2014 through 2016, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s close to the record decline recorded in 1990-92, when the world was in the throes of a major recession. In 2014-16, though, the global economy continued to grow even as coal use dropped.
The oil giant BP estimated that coal use rose about 1% in 2017, as reported by Carbon Shift in June. It’s not yet clear whether this represents a one-year blip or a larger trend, although there are hints of the latter (see embedded tweet below).
Another distressing and not-unrelated factoid: global emissions of carbon dioxide rose about 1.6% in 2017, according to BP, after three years of flat or falling emissions accompanied by global economic growth. New projections for 2018 from the Global Carbon Budget show that global emissions rose even more this year—by at least 1.8% and perhaps as much as 3.7%.
The Global Carbon Project's preliminary projections for 2018 contain almost NO good news.— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) December 5, 2018
Global carbon dioxide emissions +2.7%
USA emissions +2.5%
China emissions +4.7%
Even coal use is slightly up globally.https://t.co/3IswuqbazU pic.twitter.com/Twhk6SHk5b
|Figure 5. The trajectory of coal as the world’s leading source of electricity slowed in the 2010s, as coal usage began to flatline while other sources increased. Solar power is the largest component of the “other” category. Image credit: The Shift Project Data Portal, adapted for use in the forthcoming second edition of my book “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” (AMS Books).|
A paradoxical U.S move in the works
With ever-increasing amounts of renewable energy streaming into the U.S. power grids, U.S. coal production has looked more and more like a losing proposition. U.S. coal output dropped more than 4% from 2005 to 2010 and another 8% from 2010 to 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service. However, given President Trump’s stated desire to boost U.S. coal output, it’s not a shock to learn that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intends to make it easier for new coal plants to get started, as the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The new rules are part of a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, an executive action implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012. The plan would have effectively required all new coal plants to incorporate CCS technology.
As the Times put it, “The replacement measure eases those constraints, sending a powerful signal to the coal industry, as well as to other countries struggling with the political difficulties of addressing climate change, that the United States is trying to pave the way for coal-burning plants.”
Just when leaders from around the globe are meeting in Poland to hash out a path for implementing the Paris Agreement, it’s hard to imagine a more perverse, or paradoxical, message for the U.S. to send to the world.