Politics & Policy

The Social Justice of Coal

(Viktor Gladkov/Dreamstime)
The world’s poor deserve an expansion of coal production.

Demonize coal. Keep the poor in the dark. And, above all, keep pushing the fantasy that U.S. government action (with or without the approval of Congress) is essential to dealing with climate change.

That — in a nutshell — is the climate-change strategy of the Obama administration and its environmentalist allies.

Evidence of the third point can be found by looking at the “Clean Power Plan” — the 645-page set of rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency last June that, if it withstands legal challenges, will effectively outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPA made the move even though the proposed reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (about 720 million tons per year by 2030) are being dwarfed by the ongoing increases in global carbon dioxide emissions.

Further evidence for that third point was offered on Tuesday by White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who told reporters that, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, President Obama will continue to use his executive authority to push policies aimed at dealing with climate change. The reason? Earnest said there are “too many Republicans in Congress who even deny the basic scientific fact that climate change is occurring.”

Let’s set aside Earnest’s claim about “scientific fact.” Furthermore, let’s ignore the arguments as to whether or not climate change is occurring. Instead, let’s focus on the first and second points of the strategy: demonize coal and keep the poor in the dark.

Before going further, let me state the obvious: Demonizing coal is easy. Coal mining is often a dirty and dangerous business. Coal-production methods like mountain-top removal obliterate the landscape. Coal mining can be deadly: More than 1,000 Chinese coal miners died on the job in 2013 alone. And of course, coal combustion creates air pollution. Furthermore, combustion of the carbon-heavy fuel now accounts for about 44 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

So it’s beyond easy for the Sierra Club (one of America’s oldest and most influential environmental groups) to push its “beyond coal” campaign. And it’s easier still for super-wealthy Democrats to support it. A major backer of the Sierra Club’s campaign is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave the environmental group $50 million to help it “end the coal era.”

But the Sierra Club’s “beyond coal” slogan also illustrates the absurdity of the Left’s climate-change strategy. The coal era isn’t ending. Not by a long shot.

Coal is the world’s fastest-growing form of energy and it has been since 1973. In 2013 alone, coal use grew by about 2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. That was about three times the growth seen in natural gas (which grew by about 700,000 boe/d), four times the rate of growth in wind (up by about 500,000 boe/d), and 13 times the growth in solar (which was up by about 150,000 boe/d).

Coal demand is booming because the fuel is perfectly suited for electricity production, it’s abundant, its reserves are geographically dispersed, prices are not affected by any OPEC-like entities, and — above all — it’s cheap. Coal consumption will continue rising in the years ahead. More than 500,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity is either being built or is planned in countries ranging from Germany to Pakistan.

Of course, China has led the rush toward coal and now accounts for fully half of global coal consumption. But other Asian countries, including Indonesia and India, have also dramatically increased their coal consumption, and in doing so they have improved living standards and brought hundreds of millions of people out of darkness. For instance, since 1990, about 500 million Indians have gained access to electricity, and life expectancy in that country has increased by nearly eight years.

And that brings us to the most revolting tenet of the Left’s climate-change strategy: their desire to keep the poor in the dark.

As I reported in these pages last year, a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has convinced the Obama administration that it should oppose the financing of coal-fired power plants in developing countries out of concern for climate change. And the Obama administration has been doing just that. In July 2013, the Export-Import Bank, an export-credit agency backed by the U.S. government, voted to halt financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. At about the same time, the World Bank declared that it would limit financing of coal-fired-generation projects to “rare circumstances.”

The Obama administration is now saying it will not provide financing to most overseas coal plants unless the projects use carbon capture and storage, a technology that is extraordinarily expensive and unproven on a large scale.

The essentiality of coal to electricity production cannot be denied. Coal-fired generators provide about 40 percent of all global electricity. And while coal’s share of the global electric market will decline in the years ahead, the Energy Information Administration expects that coal will still be providing about 36 percent of the world’s electricity in 2030.

Coal is an essential fuel for combating energy poverty. I recently completed a paper for the Manhattan Institute that found that between 1990 and 2010, about 1.7 billion people gained access to electricity. Of that number, some 830 million people gained access owing to coal. Natural gas came in second, with about 380 million, and hydro came in third with about 290 million. Put another way, over that two-decade period, for every one person who gained access owing to solar and wind energy, four gained access owing to hydro; six gained access owing to natural gas; and 13 gained access owing to coal.

Despite the progress that has been made in recent years, some 1.2 billion people still don’t have access to electricity, and billions more have only limited access.

Bangladesh provides a prime example of energy poverty. The average Bangladeshi consumes about 240 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. That low level of use results in predictably low levels of wealth: Bangladesh has a per capita GDP of $2,100. For comparison, the average American consumes over 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, 50 times as much as the average Bangladeshi, and the U.S. has a per capita GDP of about $52,800, 25 times that of Bangladesh.

Given the level of energy poverty in Bangladesh, it should be no surprise that the Bangladeshi government is planning to build more coal-fired power plants. And this is where policy matters. If the U.S. is serious about addressing climate change, it should be supporting the deployment of the most efficient coal-fired power plants.

One of the new plants planned for Bangladesh is an example of the trend toward greater thermal efficiency in power plants. No, the plant isn’t “clean coal” — a term I’ve always thought was oxymoronic, akin to “jumbo shrimp” and “family vacation” — but it is cleaner coal, and that’s a key distinction. The plant will utilize ultrasupercritical combustion, a process that burns the coal at higher temperature and pressure than that used in subcritical combustion.

About 75 percent of the world’s coal-fired plants are using subcritical technology, which has a thermal efficiency of up to 38 percent and produces about 880 grams of carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. The new Bangladeshi plant will achieve thermal efficiencies of up to 45 percent while cutting carbon dioxide to about 740 grams per kilowatt-hour, a 15 percent improvement.

Climate activists frequently tout the need for greater efficiency. Given coal’s irreplaceability in the global energy mix, it makes sense to be promoting combustion technologies that wring the most electricity out of each kilogram of coal consumed and thereby reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. But while increased efficiency is important, the broader issue is equity. It’s time to move past the claim that all carbon dioxide emissions are harmful and to accept the fact that increased use of hydrocarbons results in better living standards. Indeed, per capita carbon dioxide emissions (like per capita electricity usage) are a reliable indicator of higher incomes.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prizewinning economist, made this exact point in an essay published in The New Republic in August. “In thinking about expanding human freedom today and sustaining it in the future,” he wrote, “we have to take fuller note of the need for greater energy use for a large number of deprived people in the world.” (Emphasis in the original.) Sen, an Indian, continued, “The focus has to be shifted from a single-minded concentration on reducing emissions to a broader understanding of the range of needs of people and the demands that come from expanding and sustaining their substantive freedoms to live reasonably good lives.”

Yes, renewable forms of energy — and solar in particular — are getting cheaper and are being deployed more widely. But today, and for decades to come, coal-fired electricity will continue to be one of the best options for fighting the darkness. And for people living in the wealthy countries, the rational stand — the moral stand — when it comes to cleaner-coal plants like the one being planned for Bangladesh, is not to attempt to stop them, but to encourage their development.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This piece is adapted from his recent report for the institute called “Not Beyond Coal.”



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