Coal & Climate Change

Coal and Climate Change 

Our climate is changing.  This winter was the warmest since records were first kept in 1880.  Already millions of people do not like the changes.  The Inter-Governmental Panel of Climate Change has estimated global temperatures to rise between 2 - 4.5°C this century if fossil fuel burning is not reduced.  Carbon dioxide is the most plentiful greenhouse gas we discharge into the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide persists for many decades and therefore it accumulates as we keep adding to it. We add as much as six million tons of this gas per day and coal burning alone adds eight billion tons per year.  These additions increase carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 2- 3 parts per million (ppm) annually.  However, this concentration will increase as global energy demand rises by 1.7 % per year and numbers of coal-fired power plants are expected to double by 2030. 

Carbon dioxide levels have reached 380 ppm, an increase of 100 ppm since the eighteenth century, when the use of fossil fuels increased to meet our energy ‘wants’.  What will the climate be like when we reach 480 ppm in some 30 years?  There is no agreement which maximum is acceptable.  To what level do we dare let it go? To what level will you let it go?  Remember! We are not playing poker. An incorrect  judgement will be catastrophic for all life forms.

In 2004, coal provided 25% of the global electricity supply. Coal is the most plentiful fossil fuel and the dirtiest when burned. In Alberta 76% of our electricity is generated in five power plants which burn some 25 million tonnes of coal annually.  There are only two ways of reducing greenhouse gases emissions from coal burning: (1) Burn less coal.  This will help to reduce total carbon dioxide emissions in Canada to 8% below1990 levels. This would meet our international commitment under the Kyoto agreement and be the first step in the correct direction. (2) Collect the carbon dioxide at source and store it underground.  However, the latter is untested technology and to date no coal-fired power plant, among thousands, is so equipped. 

We have only two choices to avoid run-away climate change: REPLACE demand for fossil fuels sufficiently (coal and petroleum) with cleaner energy sources and /or bury sufficient carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. 

Who will lead us in this challenge? Industry operates for profit and politicians do not lead us in this dilemma. It will have to be you and I to do it.

Klaus Jericho
Southern Alberta Group for the Environment
March 21, 2007