Is Coal A Viable Long-Term Source of Energy?

By Sal Bommarito

The opponents in the never-ending debate about global warming continue to be at loggerheads. For every scientist that says Armageddon is around the corner, there is a scientist that believes the danger is being blown out of proportion.

There is no doubt that fossil fuels such as coal are polluting the environment, increasing temperatures across the globe and creating health problems in many urban areas. There are a plethora of social and economic ramifications relating to the closing of coal-fired facilities. These issues weigh heavily on China and the U.S.

There have been reports that many Chinese are suffering serious health problems relating to extraordinary pollution precipitated by coal-fired plants. The economic revolution in the country over the past two decades necessitated greater and greater sources of energy. But the facilities that provided more energy, especially those near densely populated areas, are taking a toll.

China has agreed to participate in the global effort to stem global climate change. It is a convenient time for it to have this change of heart. An economic downturn has decreased the country’s energy requirements in the short-term.

A New York Times article indicates that China is “trying to slow things down.” This week the government issued guidelines that will halt plans for certain new coal-fired stations. The guidelines will impact 200 new planned facilities. The 105 gigawatts affiliated with these plants would be more than “the electricity-generated capacity of Britain from all sources.”

The international community has been addressing global warming of late, and leaders of 175 countries including China met last week to sign a climate accord. The intent is to keep “the increase in global temperatures between 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Nevertheless and notwithstanding that coal is becoming more unpopular in China, the state is “adding new coal-fired generators at a pace not seen in a decade.”

Experts believe that the Chinese government will not stymie the country’s growth by ignoring its longer-term energy needs. Rapid economic growth is important to China from every macro perspective. So the current attitude of the government to cooperate in the battle to decrease carbon emissions may be short-lived if economic activity begins to accelerate.

In the past the Chinese have indicated that it’s industrial revolution should be able to proceed, just like the U.S.’s in the 19th Century, without undue restrictions prescribed by other nations.

In the U.S., the world’s second largest carbon emitter, the situation is different. It has been very difficult to build new coal-fired plants under the Obama administration. Last year 14 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity were retired and there are only six new plants planned for the next five years with a total capacity of less than 2 gigawatts.

Exacerbating the U.S. situation is concern for American’s dependence on the coal industry for jobs. Less capacity means fewer opportunities for thousands of workers in coal producing areas across America.

Our leaders and lawmakers will need to balance the global warming issue with the economic and social impact of decreasing coal facilities. It will be a hard fought debate.

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