Dirty fuel should be consigned to the coal bin of history | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: Dirty fuel should be consigned to the coal bin of history

We are well beyond the 18th century. With energy, it's time to look to the future and not the past. That means finding ways to encourage clean energy development and discourage fossil fuel consumption. (Credit: Jon Martin via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

More than anything else, coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution. It was, and still is, plentiful and cheap. It's also always been relatively easy to get at, especially if you don't mind sending kids into mines, endangering the lives of miners, or blasting the tops off mountains.

Coal is an 18th-century fuel source, but we're still relying on it for much of our energy needs in the 21st century. Because it's so abundant and inexpensive, there's been little incentive to switch to cleaner but often more expensive sources.

Burning coal pollutes the air, land, and water and is a major driver of climate change. Emissions from coal combustion contain sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury, arsenic, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, lead, small particles, and other toxic materials. These cause acid rain, smog, damage to forests and waterways, and a range of serious health problems in humans, from lung disease to cancer.

Subscribe to Science Matters

And, as University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver concluded after comparing the impacts of burning tar sands oil to burning coal, "We will live or die by our future consumption of coal." That doesn't mean the tar sands are okay; it's just that there's a lot more coal in the world, and the impacts of mining and burning it are more severe.

Weaver stressed that, "While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally, the tar sands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments."

I agree with Weaver that the "world needs to transition away from fossil fuels if it wants to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate system. That means coal, unconventional gas, and unconventional oil all need to be addressed."

Canada uses more than half its coal to generate electricity and for industry. We export about 40 per cent, much of it to Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Canada also imports coal, mainly because it's cheaper to ship it from the U.S. to eastern provinces than from Western Canada.

About 18 per cent of Canada's electricity is from coal, less than the global 40 per cent average, and much less than countries like China, which uses coal to generate about 80 per cent of its electricity. But use varies across the country. According to Natural Resources Canada, "Coal is used to produce about 74 per cent of the electricity used in Alberta, 63 per cent in Saskatchewan, 60 per cent in Nova Scotia, and 18 per cent in Ontario. The coal not used to generate electricity is consumed by Canada's steel, cement and other industries."

Rather than looking for cleaner ways to generate energy, many industrial and government leaders have been touting "clean coal". This means trying to reduce some of the pollutants and CO2 by "scrubbing" them from emissions or by burying them underground in a process called carbon capture and storage. It can also mean converting coal to gas.

These are inadequate solutions. They don't get rid of all the pollutants. Carbon capture is expensive and mostly unproven and we don't fully understand the consequences of burying carbon dioxide. The governments of Canada and Alberta have committed $3 billion in taxpayer money since 2008 for demonstration CCS projects, mostly for coal operations, but some for the tar sands. Even with CCS, coal plants would not be required to eliminate their CO2 emissions, just reduce them.

As long as coal remains so inexpensive to obtain and burn, with few or no dollars paid for the environmental damage it causes, it will continue to be used. And that endangers us all. We need leadership on this. As Andrew Weaver said, "The atmosphere has traditionally been viewed as an unregulated dumping ground. There is no cost associated with emitting greenhouse gases. Economists call this a market failure. To correct this failure, a price is needed on emissions."

We are well beyond the 18th century. With energy, it's time to look to the future and not the past. That means finding ways to encourage clean energy development and discourage fossil fuel consumption. Carbon taxes and cap and trade must be part of the equation.

March 22, 2012
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2012/03/dirty-fuel-should-be-consigned-to-the-coal-bin-of-history/

Read more

Post a comment


4 Comments

Mar 23, 2012
1:43 PM

I would imagine that the wealthiest among us with inside info are currently hedging their bets against unconventional oil, unconventional gas and wind/solar. The alternative being the scheme of a coal based energy economy with carbon capture and storage combined with standard size electric cars powered by coal driven large scale electric plants. This of course would be the only way to recapture the same kind of wealth generation for the few at the expense of the many as oil did. I had wondered for many years exactly what kind of coup they would try and now we know. If Al Gore is invested in this stuff, I don't like him.

If we travel down that road it's almost certain we would see negative impacts for the environment, and yet there would be no turning away from it until the coal became too expensive a couple of hundred years along.

Why pursue that path for the benefit of a few radicals bent only on their own personal financial gain?

Mar 23, 2012
2:18 AM

The use of renewables for generating power is to be congratulated. The latest coal publications and coal prices is that emerging countries are predicting to use large amounts of thermal coal for power generation and coal reports for steel production. Cherry of www.coalportal.com

Mar 23, 2012
2:18 AM

The use of renewables for generating power is to be congratulated. The latest coal publications and coal prices is that emerging countries are predicting to use large amounts of thermal coal for power generation and coal reports for steel production. Cherry of www.coalportal.com

Mar 22, 2012
2:07 PM

There is one alternative to carbon capture and storage that makes more sense to invest in and would result in a coal free future and that is carbon dioxide recycling. The Co2 comes out of the air and hydrogen from water (you get this back) then you use solar wind etc to supply the energy needed to power a process that results in a fuel that can be stored and used for heat or power as needed. This is entirely feasible even for relatively small scale use such as homes to use. Using coal and ccs would create a big industry with questionable effects on the environment but the resources tied up in that industry could be put to better use.

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »