Through the past four years I’ve often suggested that China’s vaunted achievements are less impressive, or at least more complicated, seen up close. Yes, Chinese factories make nearly all of the world’s consumer electronic equipment. But the brand names, designs, and most of the profits usually belong to companies and people outside China. Yes, China’s accumulated trade surpluses have made it the creditor for America and much of the world. But the huge share of its own wealth that China has sunk into foreign economies ties its fate to theirs. Yes, more and more Chinese people are very rich. But hundreds of millions of Chinese people are still very poor. Yes, Chinese factories lead the world in output of windmills and solar-power panels. But China’s environmental situation is still so dire as to pose the main threat not just to the country’s public health and political stability but also to its own economic expansion.
This report will have a different tone. I have been learning about an area of Chinese achievement that is objectively good for the world as a whole, including the United States. Surprising enough! And China’s achievement dramatically highlights a structural advantage of its approach and a weakness of America’s. It involves the shared global effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, of which China and the United States are respectively the No. 1 and No. 2 producers, together creating more than 40 percent of the world’s total output. That shared effort is real, and important. The significant Chinese developments involve more than the “clean tech” boom that Americans have already heard so much about. Instead a different, less publicized, and much less appealing-sounding effort may matter even more in determining whether the United States and China can cooperate to reduce emissions. This involves not clean tech but the dirtiest of today’s main energy sources—coal.
Video: James Fallows flies his plane over coal country with TheAtlantic.com's Technology Editor Alexis Madrigal as copilot.
Mining coal is notoriously dangerous, the remnants of those mines disfigure the Earth, and the by-products of coal’s combustion fill the air not simply with soot, smoke, and carbon dioxide but also with toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead, plus corrosive oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, among other pollutants. When I visited coal towns in China’s Shandong and Shanxi provinces, my face, arms, and hands would be rimed in black by the end of each day—even when I hadn’t gone near a mine. People in those towns, like their predecessors in industrial-age Europe and America, have the same black coating on their throats and lungs, of course. When I have traveled at low altitude in small airplanes above America’s active coal-mining regions—West Virginia and Kentucky in the East, Wyoming and its neighbors in the Great Basin region of the West—I’ve seen the huge scars left by “mountain top removal” and open-pit mining for coal, which are usually invisible from the road and harder to identify from six miles up in an airliner. Compared with most other fossil-fuel sources of energy, coal is inherently worse from a carbon-footprint perspective, since its hydrogen atoms come bound with more carbon atoms, meaning that coal starts with a higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratio than oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons.
The proposition that coal could constitute any kind of “hope” or solution, or that a major environmentalist action plan could be called “Coal Without Carbon,” as one I will describe is indeed named—this goes beyond seeming interestingly contrarian to seeming simply wrong. For the coal industry, the term “clean coal” is an advertising slogan; for many in the environmental movement, it is an insulting oxymoron. But two ideas that underlie the term are taken with complete seriousness by businesses, scientists, and government officials in China and America, and are the basis of the most extensive cooperation now under way between the countries on climate issues. One is that coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now. The other is that it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands.
This is not an argument against all-out effort on all other fronts, from conservation and efficiency to improved battery technology to wind- and solar-power systems to improved nuclear facilities. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has argued for years that designing buildings and transportation systems to waste less energy from the start is by far the cheapest way to reduce damaging emissions (a position reinforced by influential studies from McKinsey & Company). “Good ideas about climate change are not in competition with one another,” Roger Aines, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me when I visited this summer. “We need every possible solution, and then we need more.”
This is an argument for recognizing that China has faced reality, in launching an all-out effort to “decarbonize” coal—and for recognizing America’s difficulty in doing the same.
Let’s review the basics. This material will be elementary for some readers and controversial for a few others, but laying it out helps clarify the problem to be solved and the real options from which to choose. Also, the quantities and numbers involved here are so vast—the standard unit in discussing carbon-dioxide emissions is the gigaton, or 1 billion metric tons—that it helps to have some indicators of scale.
All human activity together puts roughly 37 billion tons (37 gigatons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That number has been rising, as the world’s population grows and the number of cars, factories, and power plants increases. Twenty years ago, it was less than 25 billion tons. Twenty years from now, it could well be 50 billion tons. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas—that is, a substance that affects the atmosphere’s ability to absorb and emit heat, so that a growing portion of the sun’s energy is trapped to warm the planet rather than radiating back into space. Methane, nitrous oxide, aerosols, and other emissions play a major role, and ton per ton can be more powerful in greenhouse effect. But the focus is on carbon dioxide because we produce so much of it, and because its effects are so long-lasting.
Carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere persists for many decades, even centuries—unlike methane, which can disperse within a single decade. This means that when more carbon dioxide is emitted than natural systems absorb, the concentration in the atmosphere continually goes up. Before James Watt invented the steam engine in the late 1700s—that is, before human societies had much incentive to burn coal and later oil in large quantities—the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was around 280 parts per million, or ppm (meaning 280 carbon-dioxide molecules per million molecules of “dried air,” or air with the water removed). It is thought to have fluctuated between about 180 and 280 ppm through the previous 800,000 years. By 1900, as Europe and North America were industrializing, it had reached about 300 ppm.
Now the carbon-dioxide concentration is at or above 390 ppm, which is probably the highest level in many millions of years. “We know that the last time CO2 was sustained at this level, much of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets were not there,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, told me. Because of the 37 billion annual tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, the atmospheric carbon-dioxide level continues to go up by about two ppm a year. For perspective: by the time today’s sixth-graders finish high school, the world carbon-dioxide level will probably have passed 400 ppm, and by the time most of them are starting families, it will have entered the 420s.
Have we so far come across anything that is “controversial”? No: such political controversy as exists mainly concerns the exact connection between rising carbon-dioxide levels and future climate change, and how harmful (and to whom) that change would be. That the atmospheric carbon-dioxide level is rapidly going up, and that recent years have been on average the warmest in recorded history, no one bothers to dispute. And in any case, all parties to the negotiations I’m describing, including the heads of the major coal-mining and electric-power utilities in the United States and China, accept as settled fact that greenhouse-gas emissions are an emergency they must confront, because of the likely disruptive effects on the world’s climate. At a U.S.-China environmental conference this summer in San Francisco, I heard one utility-company official after another testify, confession-meeting style, about the vast extent of their current emissions and their need to reform.
The main uncertainties involve what might happen as carbon-dioxide levels reach 450 ppm and above. In particular, the question is how and when “positive feedback” loops would kick in, so that the hotter things get, the faster they will get even hotter. The main way this would happen would be through melting of the polar ice sheets, which would mean less white ice surface to reflect the sun’s heat, and more blue water surface to absorb it. Similarly, the vast Arctic permafrost areas could have a positive-feedback effect as they thaw. They are essentially frozen peat bogs, which contain huge amounts of methane. As they began to melt, they would release their methane, which in turn could trigger even faster melting and more methane release.
“The reality of it is that in many cases, there may not be any fixed threshold for ‘irreversible’ change,” Michael Mann told me. “What we have with rising CO2 levels in general is a dramatically increasing probability of serious and deleterious change in our climate.” He went down the list: more frequent, severe, and sustained heat waves, like those that affected Russia and the United States this summer; more frequent and destructive hurricanes and floods; more frequent droughts, like the “thousand-year drought” that has devastated Australian agriculture; and altered patterns of the El Niño phenomenon, which will change rainfall patterns in the Americas. In other cases, he said, there could be important thresholds. For example, the possibility of dramatic rises in ocean levels, which could affect the habitability of New York, London, Shanghai, Miami, the entire Netherlands, and many other modern conurbations, along with coastal areas in India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. “It would be nice to know where such thresholds are so we can avoid crossing them,” Mann said. “We can’t know that. What we do know for certain is that with each fraction of a degree of warming, the probability of such potentially catastrophic outcomes goes up.”