7 Predictions For the Future of Coal

How the world of the future should use coal, and why it matters

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The international climate conference in Copenhagen addresses an array of interconnected environmental, energy and economic issues. One crucial topic on all three fronts is the use of coal. A dangerous pollutant that is also the source of about a quarter of the world's energy, coal is a bugbear to environmentalists and a key component of the American, Chinese and developing economies. Coal cannot simply be abandoned, of course, but how can the world rethink its use of coal for energy in a way that reduces its detrimental environmental impact?  A few ideas and prognostications for the future of coal:

  • Store Carbon In Concrete The idea that carbon by-products of coal should be stored underground is nothing new. But Huffington Post's Alexia Parks says we should consider concrete. Parks profiles Brent Constantz, founder of Silicon start-up Calera that tested the idea. "The world needs concrete. It also needs a real-time solution to sequester flue gases from coal-fired power plants," she writes. "his business solution would eliminate the need for the U.S. Department of Energy to spend billions of dollars to test the concept of carbon sequestration in the earth."
  • Regulate Coal Ash The Huffington Post's Bruce Nilles asks of the coal by-product, "How many people have to be sickened or killed before we get strong coal ash regulations in the U.S.?" He writes, "We know that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic, with harmful levels of arsenic, selenium and other pollutants; we know that those living near coal ash sites face an increased risk of cancer, damage the nervous and reproductive systems, and other serious illnesses."
  • Truly Clean Coal Clean Air Task Force Director Armond Cohen thinks it's a possibility, even though so-called "clean coal" being used today is not what it claims. "Those projects include: an older coal plant in West Virginia that is capturing and sequestering a portion of its carbon dioxide, and a new kind of power plant under construction in Tianjin, China, that is designed from the beginning to produce near-zero-carbon power." Cohen says innovation should focus on coal because developing economies will continue to rely on it and wind power is not yet economically feasible.
  • India Will Lead Innovation Christian Science Monitor's Kurt Waltzer, P.R. Shukla and Semil Shah insist, "India has no choice but to transform into the world's most innovated in climate technology and clean energy. Cash isn't the problem - it's the lack of a comprehensive, long-term plan and India's long-term use of coal power. India and the US should collaborate to actively leverage and focus engineering talent and financial resources to create cleaner low-cost energy technology." Though "coal will remain the major energy component for the foreseeable future" for India, technologies like "underground coal gasification" promise to reduce pollution. The Times of India agrees, adding that China would benefit from such innovation.
  • China Will Lead Consumption Heritage Foundation's Derek Scissors reports, "Coal now provides 70 percent of the PRC's energy and almost 80 percent of its electricity, with both figures higher than they were a decade ago. These shares may barely shift for decades to come. For better or for worse, transportation is not particularly important in Chinese energy use, so oil is far less important than coal. And while the PRC has a much-touted goal of 15 percent of energy from renewables, U.S. government projections have the proportion of Chinese electricity generated by coal remaining at 75 percent in 2030"
  • Indonesia's Coal Boom The Economist explains, "For power stations on the coast of China, it is often cheaper to import coal by sea from Indonesia than from mines in the interior. The same goes for many Indian consumers. Japan and South Korea, both big importers, are also close--putting Indonesia at the heart of an Asian coal boom." This may explain China's willingness to reduce domestic coal mining. "Indonesia's coal is of better quality. The Chinese government, meanwhile, is shutting down smaller mines."
  • Go Nuclear! NASA climate scientist James Hansen says he boycotts Copenhagen because of its insistence on cap and trade, which he sees as merely mitigating the use of coal rather than eliminating it altogether as he believes it should be. He tells a Times of London reporter the world must embrace "a new generation of nuclear power." The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan agrees: "Why is this country's political system unable even to contemplate the most obvious, cleanest, simplest response to this emerging problem?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.