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Sierra Daily

Nov 15, 2010

Clean Coal and Magic Ponies

For the past week I've been mulling over James Fallows' provocative story in the December Atlantic, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future.” Fallows, an old China hand, points out that China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, and that while it leads the world in producing wind turbines and solar panels, “other sources of power are growing faster in relative terms. . . year by year the most dramatic increase is in China’s use of coal.” Sadly typical of the depressing details he marshals is this:

Part of the reason China has committed some $80 billion over the next decade to build light-rail networks across the country is to get human passengers off the main rail lines, opening up more capacity to move coal.

Vastly increased use of coal is inevitable, he argues, so the only hope to avoid a future of climate chaos is to hope that the United States and China can follow through successfully on their current efforts to develop "clean coal" technologies. While environmental organizations (including the Sierra Club) generally regard clean coal as an "insulting oxymoron," Fallows maintains, "China has faced reality, in launching an all-out effort to 'decarbonize' coal." The United States should join it in this effort, he argues, although he fears we lack the "seriousness" to do so.

Obviously there's a lot to digest here, and no synopsis is an excuse for reading Fallows' original. Dave Roberts took him to task in Grist for what he took to be "hippie punching"--i.e., framing his article as a rebuke to anti-coal environmentalists rather than pro-coal "powers that be."  Fallows replied, convincingly, that his interest was not in beating up on environmentalists, but only in drawing attention to the little known collaboration between U.S. scientists and engineers on clean coal technology. He continues:

In my experience, "most people" who take climate issues seriously assume that coal is unambiguously the enemy. What I'd learned over these past years in China convinced me that coal is an enemy but an unavoidable one, and that while working on every other front we'll be better off if we try to clean up coal too, rather than assuming it away.

Whether or not environmentalists are mistaken about clean coal is an issue, I am afraid, rather above my pay grade. I don't doubt that if China's rulers--or ours, for that matter--were presented with an effective and economically viable method for decarbonizing coal they'd be happy to adopt it. But as Fallows makes clear, China isn't waiting around until such a method is developed, and neither are coal-powered utilities in this country. Clean coal is something of a magic pony plan; it would be cool if it existed, but it doesn't--not at prices anyone wants to pay, at any rate. It may also be that China's rulers desire this magic pony more than ours; after all, half of the incoming freshman class of GOP members of Congress are global warming deniers. But especially in the absence of a price on carbon, the eternal quest for clean coal all too easily becomes an excuse for doing nothing. Are we really willing to bet our planet's future on a magic pony?  

--Paul Rauber

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