Jeremy CarlThis is part one of a guest essay from Jeremy Carl, a Research Fellow at the Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development. A few weeks ago, I wrote a rather heated post keyed off an interview with Carl in Wired. He asked for an opportunity to respond; naturally I said yes.


As I understand it, David’s primary problem with the article is that he believed we were just "assuming" coal’s future prominent role in our energy system. And in some sense he is right — as someone who is researching the global coal system every day, I am assuming coal’s future (particularly in China and India.) I’ll outline why I feel this way in the rest of this post, but for now, I’ll simply point out that I am not the only one who believes this. The IEA said as much in its recent bleak report where it predicted coal use would grow 73% between 2005 and 2030. Avoiding a significant rise in coal use over the next 25 years would require both a technological and policy revolution "on an unprecedented scale," according to the IEA.

Let me be clear — there is no doubt that coal is as dirty a form of energy as we have, both in its mining and its combustion. I’m not suggesting that the environmental community should advocate for coal usage or even accept our current and growing level of coal usage globally. I’m not even saying that elements in our community shouldn’t be out in the streets protesting against coal. What I do want to say is that as an empirical matter, the environmental community has little power to eliminate or even dramatically reduce the usage of coal over the short to medium term (say the next 20 years at a minimum). Frankly, even to keep global coal use flat over that time would be an incredible, almost inconceivable, achievement. So, in addition to whatever advocacy work environmentalists choose to do against coal, we also need to deal with coal as a short-term and probably long-term reality.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But don’t take my word for it, or even the IEA’s. Last week, Anil Razdan, secretary of the Indian Ministry of Power, told the World Energy Congress in Rome that India and China were going to use coal "whether the rest of the world likes it or not. That’s the only fuel that they can afford at the moment." This forthright statement, according to press reports, met with virtually unanimous agreement among conference attendees.

Mr. Razdan’s sentiments also harmonize with countless conversations I have had with public and private sector officials in Indian and Chinese business, government, and civil society over the last several years — these are the two countries that are the subject of my full-time research, and while there are certainly some people more knowledgeable about their byways then I am, I think I know their energy politics and policies fairly well. Even when I lived in India and worked at The Energy and Resources Institute, directed by IPCC head R.K. Pachauri, few of my fellow staff members questioned coal’s central role in India’s energy future.

Every energy projection that I have seen shows coal usage in China and India (who together use almost half of the world’s coal today) as both large and growing substantially over the next 30 years. Now, it is possible that every one of these projections will be wrong, and that that some wondrous new technology will be developed and quickly deployed at unprecedented scale — but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In fact, even the fairly aggressive recent projections of coal growth for China and India post Kyoto have beendwarfed by the reality of their coal-fired power and industrial booms. It is certainly true that the science and politics around climate change are dynamic, and perhaps the pressure of global climate politics will become so great that China and India will begin to phase out use of virtually their only domestic source of fossil energy, one in which they have already invested hundreds of billions of dollars. But given the current political trends, wherein rising concern about global warming has been met with precious little real action in the U.S. and Europe (who can afford to make such changes much more easily) and virtually none in China and India, why should we expect a dramatic and unprecedented shift now?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Now David’s point about coal’s cheapness resulting from its "freedom to pollute" is largely correct, but frankly that’s not about to change, at least in the developing world. It’s possible that it will change in the U.S. and Europe, but given the fact that coal usage has grown in absolute terms even in Europe and The U.S. during the Kyoto Era, count me as skeptical that a revolution is underway. As anyone who has dealt seriously with either country knows, the Indian and Chinese governments are, for the most part, deeply corrupt — there’s little we can do to change that. Powerful entrenched interests benefit from the existing system and they care about money, not climate. Second, even if corruption were eliminated, the people in these countries tend to be poor, at least by western standards. While some would certainly be willing to pay a little additional money to have cleaner energy, few would be willing to make the substantial investment that a transition away from coal would entail, even with the substantial attendant environmental benefits.

While I am all for the aggressive development and scaling up of clean and renewable energy sources, the reality is, they are not ready to be a large part of our electricity baseload today. We need to adopt a portfolio strategy for addressing climate change (i.e., the Pacala and Socolow wedges [PDF]), and given coal’s centrality as the source of a quarter of the world’s energy, that portfolio needs to include clean coal technologies. Natural gas is already expensive and geographically concentrated, and if we begin substituting it for coal in a big way, it is going to become much more expensive. Oil is scarce and expensive. I hardly need to point out nuclear’s security and potential environmental problems. That pretty much sums up our potential current alternatives. In addition, more than 90% of the fossil fuel energy available in China, India and the U.S. is in the form of coal, making it unlikely that these energy giants are going abandon their largest energy resources in favor of going abroad for dwindling supplies of oil and gas. With the billions of expensive power plant costs already having been spent, it is extremely unlikely they are going to be abandoned in the next few years.

As for the much-hyped subject of energy efficiency, I’m a dissident from the cult of Amory Lovins. While "negawatts" and efficiency are great in theory, Lovins is often quite misleading about how hard it is to get there on a mass scale. There are a number of reasons why efficiency initiatives are not undertaken beyond pure bias and market structure. If people don’t pick up Amory’s famous $20 bills lying on the ground, maybe that’s because they aren’t really there. Efficiency and conservation are great, but they can only take us so far.

That’s where my problem with our current approach lies. At Stanford and in Silicon Valley, I’m blessed to be surrounded by a many incredibly bright people who are doing great work to develop the next generation of clean energy technologies and policies. At one level, it’s quite inspiring. But at another level, there’s a lot of moral self-indulgence going on — people want to work on the next big thing, but few people want to work on cleaning up a traditional and dirty fuel, even though its contribution to the world’s energy supply is more than 50 times that of wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy combined and it seems overwhelmingly likely to keep growing. Coal just doesn’t make good cocktail party conversation, and frankly a lot of being "green" out here (and elsewhere, I suspect) is about a lifestyle, conspicuous displays of environmental virtue. (Though as a Prius owner, I should probably be careful before casting any stones here.) It is all too rarely grounded in hard, empirical analysis of exactly what problems we need to be working on the most.

Environmental groups generally don’t want to touch cleaning up coal in a serious way, because it is hard to raise money for anything related to coal that doesn’t call for banning it or going to 100% CCS immediately, which just isn’t feasible. In fact, attempting to validate coal in any way may hurt environmental groups with their funders. Instead, it’s much easier for these groups to push mythical solutions, or solutions that are easy to raise money around, than to address real problems.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.