This is the first entry in a series of six email exchanges between two climate-change experts on the future use of coal. The series was originally posted here.

Editoral note: While Sasha Mackler agrees that coal is one of the primary contributors to detrimental climate change, he argues that using current technology to develop low-carbon coal is imperative. Humankind’s demand for an efficient way to generate energy will grow faster than technologies for mass-producing alternate forms of energy, and if coal cannot be used in a way that is climate friendly, it will be used anyway.

Dear David,

When the good people at the State Department reached out to me to see whether I’d be game for a short email exchange on a few questions related to the future of coal and climate change, I was intrigued enough to ask them for more information. Their idea to host a series of a point-counterpoint letter exchanges on important climate policy questions in advance of the Copenhagen meetings struck me as a good one and I agreed to jump in. It was then they informed me that I would be corresponding with you on the topic of coal. Let me begin by saying that I am a Grist reader and fan and know your work quite well. Furthermore, I find myself nearly always agreeing with the line of thinking you put forward. Hence, it is with some trepidation that I step into this discussion.

First things first. To make sure that we (and our readers) appreciate what we’re up to: I will basically attempt to make a persuasive case over the course of three short emails that the answer to the following two questions is “yes.” You, I presume, will take a different viewpoint. The questions at hand are (1) Can new technologies produce economically viable “clean coal”? and (2) Is clean coal a necessary component of combating climate change? This should be fun.

I want to start off by making a few basic assertions that will drive my argument. These are not meant to be provocative. On the contrary, I hope by now they come off as slightly banal.

  • Climate change presents a profound risk to our society and our planet.
  • Climate change is being driven by mankind’s industrial activities.
  • Climate change is mostly an energy problem.
  • The world’s energy system needs to cease emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Next, I’d like to lay out a few very simple energy facts that I have no doubt you already know:

  • Coal is currently a major source of CO2 into the atmosphere. It is responsible for more than 40 percent of all global energy system carbon emissions.
  • Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel.
  • Today’s economies are heavily reliant on coal. Coal is the cheapest and most widely distributed fossil fuel. The U.S. today relies on coal for more than half of its electricity production. In China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, the number is somewhere around 80 percent.
  • Coal investment in the developing world — primarily China and India — is growing rapidly. In the last several years, China has added as many coal plants as the entire U.S. coal power fleet, which took over 60 years to build out.

So in many respects, dealing with energy from coal is the central piece of any meaningful effort to seriously address the climate challenge. The second question above ponders whether clean coal is a necessary component of the climate solution — and I say, as no fan of coal mining or other nasty power plant emissions, that it had better be. In my next two emails, I will do my best to outline my thinking on both the technical and political factors that must be considered when viewing the future of coal. I’ll touch on why it’s not realistic to think that coal will be phased out anytime soon (i.e. the next couple decades) and that time won’t allow for any other option other than capturing the CO2 from the coal we do decide to use and disposing of it underground. (I refer to this as “climate friendly” or “low carbon coal” rather than “clean” coal, for a number of pretty obvious reasons.)

To be sure, there are lots of things standing in the way of this widespread deployment of climate friendly coal plants. I’ll also say a bit more about these barriers and where the most promising technologies stand today.  Mostly, I’ll try to make the plain case that we must move beyond our old policymaking habits; that this is not a matter of choosing which low carbon technology-solar, nuclear, etc.-one likes best and then advocate for its success. The climate problem is enormous, the scale of mankind’s energy appetite is unfathomably large, and every single option we have for producing carbon-free energy (and reducing carbon-based energy) will be necessary if we’re to even have a chance of stabilizing atmospheric carbon concentrations. Layer on top of this the traditional political forces typically leveraged by incumbent industries (such as coal) that can play such a strong role in shaping policy around the world and hopefully you’ll come to agree that, in fact, the future we should be most fearful of is the one where we fail to develop climate friendly coal. It is possible and it is necessary.

My best regards,
Sasha