The problem with moving away from coal power

October 30, 2013

On Tuesday, the US government announced it would stop investing coal power plants around the world in an effort to combat climate change. Here are the details from Reuters:

The U.S. Treasury said it would only support funding for coal plants in the world’s poorest countries if they have no other efficient or economical alternative for their energy needs.

For richer countries, it would only support coal plants that deploy carbon capture and sequestration, an advanced technology for reducing emissions that is not yet commercially viable. That essentially means the United States would limit coal funding to only the world’s poorest for now.

The US is currently the second-largest emitter of CO2 in the world, behind China, but gets a relatively small amount of its electrical energy from coal, percentage-wise. (Click the graphic to view a larger image.) 

The Reuters story also highlights the problematic trade-offs between stymieing climate change and encouraging economic growth: 

The World Bank last approved funding for a coal-fired power plant in 2010 in South Africa, despite lack of support from the United States, Netherlands and Britain due to environmental concerns.

Multilateral institutions like the World Bank have come under criticism for urging global action to cut emissions of carbon dioxide while simultaneously funding coal-fired power plants. But others also fret that a lack of public funding for coal could impair energy access in poor countries that are struggling to grow.

China is trying to move away from coal to natural gas, but the country simply doesn’t have enough natural resources for that to be feasible in the long term. From Reuters Tuesday:

A chronic shortage of natural gas is hurting China’s plan to move away from burning coal to heat homes and offices, raising the prospect of more choking air pollution this winter and beyond.

The problem is worst in northern China, where air pollution mainly caused by decades of reliance on coal has lowered life expectancy by an estimated 5.5 years compared to the south, Chinese and international researchers said in July.

In the chart below, you can see how quickly demand has increased since 1990, making it even more difficult to move away from coal:


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