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Planetary Watch: The 23-Billion Ton Gorilla at the Climate Talks

by Bill Chameides | December 1st, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A coal mine in West Virginia. Coal, the world’s most plentiful and dirtiest fossil fuel, is also a huge contributor to greenhouse warming.

For the next two weeks, the global community will be meeting in Poznań, Poland, working to hash out an international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, coal — the dirtiest, most abundant fossil fuel — just got a little more abundant.

The momentum for a global agreement on emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse emissions seems to be gathering. Some scientists have recently concluded that the time for cutting this pollution is much shorter [pdf] than previously thought. The coming Obama administration has signaled commitment to a strong national policy on controlling these emissions and to playing an active role in negotiating a new international treaty. (The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.)

This week and next, delegates from countries around the world are gathering in Poland for the fourteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The stated goals of this year’s climate talks are to:

  • “move from discussion to negotiation mode” on the critical issues standing in the way of a new international agreement (most likely to be dubbed the Copenhagen Protocol) and
  • “advance understanding and commonality of views on ‘shared vision’ for a new climate change regime.”

You might think the future looks bright, but, to borrow a phrase from John Stewart, maybe not so much.

Potential Hurdle #1: The Economy, Stupid

First there’s the economy. It remains to be seen how the meltdown in global markets will affect nations’ willingness to sign on to an agreement requiring them to convert to a low-carbon economy. Though some, including President-elect Obama, see the economic crisis as an opportune time to invest in new technologies, others will likely decide it is too risky. Since Kyoto expires in just a few years, putting off international negotiations until the global economy rebounds does not seem like a good option. I doubt if anyone knows what would happen to the fledgling carbon markets here and in Europe if Kyoto expires and we don’t have another treaty ready to take its place.

Of course there is a silver lining (albeit a slim one) here: a slowdown in the economy likely means a slowdown of CO2 emissions in leading industrialized nations. This may buy us a little more time.

Potential Hurdle #2: The Problem of Coal

But then we still must deal with the world’s most abundant fossil fuel. Government estimates [pdf] put recoverable global reserves of coal at about 1 trillion tons. (See coal glossary for details on terminology and data.) The United States has the largest portion of these, estimated at 240 billion tons, with Russia (160 billion tons) and China (110 billion tons) not far behind. These are huge numbers. The amount of energy a ton of coal produces is almost four times more than that produced by a barrel of crude oil. That means the world’s estimated coal reserves are equal to about 3.3 trillion barrels of oil — or about 2.5 times more energy-producing potential than the world’s current proved oil reserves.

Despite concerns about the greenhouse pollution from coal, burning this fuel –- primarily to generate electricity –- continues to grow. In 2000, coal emissions were estimated at a little less than 9 billion tons of CO2. By 2006, it had increased to more than 12 billion tons. With total CO2 emissions estimated at about 28 billion tons, all this means coal is responsible for almost half. Suffice it to say, if we can’t get a handle on emissions from coal, we’re not going to get a handle on climate.

China’s Newly Discovered Coal Deposit Adds Another Snag in Climate Control

Which brings us to China and its newly discovered cache of coal. As we all know, China’s economy has been growing by leaps and bounds, and much of that growth is being fueled by coal. By some assessments, China is adding a new coal-fired power plant every week. With about 110 billion tons of reserves, China’s got plenty to burn. At its current rate of use (of about 2.6 billion tons a year), China has enough coal to last 42 years.

Now that time can be extended by some 20 percent, thanks to the 23-billion ton deposit just discovered in northwest China.

Given all that relatively cheap coal sitting in the ground, what are the chances that we will leave it there? Not high. That is why many believe that we must push clean-coal technology as fast as we can so we can use the coal with less pollution. But even this wouldn’t solve all the environmental problems related to coal. Did I hear anyone say mountain top removal?

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, coal, faculty, forests, global warming, Planetary Watch
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