November 28, 2018 - The New York Times has once again discovered that the world needs coal.
In a recent piece examining – or more accurately, demonizing – coal’s staying power, particularly in Asia, The Times gave a glancing and biased treatment of a selection of reasons big and small for why coal remains the world’s leading fuel for electricity generation. As one might expect, this discussion was singularly framed by climate change and the perspective that to tackle the problem, the world must quit the very fuel that it continues to lean on for a stable, secure supply of electricity and the engine for industrialization and electrification.
The Times offers a convincing imitation of balance, begrudgingly acknowledging that coal remains globally important for some obvious reasons. It’s affordable and abundant, electricity grids are designed for it and the infrastructure to use it – thousands of coal plants in dozens of nations – already exist and continue to be built. And despite the wishful thinking of those that want to see the age of coal end, there are, by even the most generous estimates, tremendous limitations to the renewable sources of energy promoted as its replacements.
While it received but a glancing mention in The Times, there are off-the-shelf advanced coal technologies that can make – and are making – a difference in the fight against rising emissions. High-efficiency low-emissions (HELE) coal technologies don’t require tearing down and rebuilding the electricity grid or abandoning fuel security. While the U.S. has fallen far behind in deploying HELE technology, China, Germany and Japan, for example, have pressed forward. Their state-of-the-art coal plants are models for what can be achieved if we start embracing solutions already within reach.
As we’ve described on more than one occasion, improving the efficiency of the global coal fleet with HELE technology could reduce global carbon emissions by 14 to 21 percent, equivalent to all of India's energy-related carbon emissions. That’s a giant leap forward, but it's progress either ignored or shunned by climate hawks that want their renewables-or-nothing approach.
The Times wrongly presents the climate debate as a black and white, good vs. evil fight with little of the shades of gray and complexity that are inherent in conversations about global energy use and growing global energy needs. The obvious, overwhelming good provided by coal – and other fossil fuels – as the very lifeblood of economic growth, prosperity and industrialization are all but ignored. Ditto the advancements in technology that can place coal and natural gas plants on equal footing when it comes to emissions, or the technologies that are in development to capture and sequester CO2. This close-minded radicalism makes the very people that claim to care most about tackling climate change dismiss the careful analysis and expert opinions of those who have made it clear that abandoning fossil fuels to reduce emissions would not only be economically ruinous but simply impossible.
All-or-nothing extremism that defies logic and physics is not only counterproductive but dangerous. Instead of attacking and targeting fuels, let’s rather focus on emissions and solutions that exist today.
Coal, oil and natural gas are here for the foreseeable future. It’s all the more reason we should be fuel and technology agnostic if those solutions help achieve progress. An all-of-the-above strategy to reducing emissions need not be a talking point. To those that know best, it’s an imperative.