If you want to see what the fight against global warming is up against, go to Shanxi Province in China.
Shanxi Province is the leading coal producing region in the biggest coal consuming country in the world. Shanxi is the West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky of China, all rolled into one.
Coal is everywhere. Coal makes jobs. Coal pays the bills. Coal controls the politics. Coal has left an indelible mark on human health and on the environment -- around town in the provincial capital of Taiyuan, across China, and around the world.
And coal is not going away. China is doing more with renewables and nuclear energy than it sometimes gets credit for, but coal will remain the energy backbone of the most spectacular economic expansion in human history.
To keep up with the demands of economic growth between now and 2030, China will have to add more power generating capacity than currently exists in the U.S. today, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in its recently released World Energy Outlook 2007 report.
Coal will supply the bulk of that growth. China uses so much coal, it began importing the stuff this year.
The result of a business-as-usual scenario of digging and burning, according to IEA estimates, is that worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will rise 60 percent by 2030, with coal-rich China leading the way, and coal-rich America, India, and Russia close behind.
Which means that for the sake of stabilizing the atmospheres greenhouse gas load, we better figure out how to reliably bury all that CO2 and we better figure it out fast.
Storage capacity is not the problem. There is enough space in briny aquifers, played-out oil and gas fields, and other underground formations to hold trillions of tons of CO2.
The problem is that we havent tried burying CO2 at a large enough scale to make sure that sequestration is a workable, long-term strategy for keeping excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
Other questions loom. What set of policies, in a new climate treaty and domestic legislation, will make sequestration a cost-competitive option in the energy market?
Who will be responsible for regulating and managing sequestration sites?
How will that responsibility be codified in law and contracts?
How will long-term management be assured and paid for?
What do we do if a sequestration site starts leaking? And many more.
Scientists from MIT and other sequestration research centers are calling on Uncle Sam to fund demonstration projects to try to answer the technical questions.
The sooner that such uncertainties are resolved, the better. If sequestration does not prove workable for whatever reason, human society would face one of two consequential choices.
We could accept the acute necessity of expanding energy efficiency, renewables, and nuclear power at heroic scales.
Or, we could take a Shanxi gamble -- burn ever-larger quantities of cheap coal and throw climate caution to the angry winds.
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