There is good news and bad news this Thanksgiving weekend on the climate stewardship front.
Bad news first. Despite the economic slowdown, the atmosphere's greenhouse gas concentration rose in 2009, due in large part to the coal-stoked economic growth in China and India, home to 40 percent of humanity. Some 92 percent of the growth in coal-fired emissions during 2007-2009 was a result of coal burning in China and India.
It has to be some sort of cosmic joke that two of the world's fastest growing economies also hold an estimated 21 percent of the world's dirtiest fuel. Must be the same prankster who put more than half of the world's proven oil reserves beneath the sands of the world's most geopolitically unstable region.
Anyway China's coal hunger is driving exports from coal-mongers in Australia, South Africa, and the U.S. - where a battle is brewing over a proposed coal loading port on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
The China/India coal binge will be grist for the mill of can't-do politicians who insist that the U.S. cannot stem the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and shouldn't try.
Oh, but it can, and here's the good news to ponder while downing another turkey sandwich and another slice of leftover pumpkin pie. A new report from Deutsche Bank, an investment house, points out that mortality is creeping up on many of the coal-fired power plants in the U.S.
Nearly half of the nation's coal-fired generating capacity is made up of aging, inefficient plants, some more than 60 years old. If utilities can be confident that the price of gas won't spike up and down with abandon, and if the specter of Congress - some day, by and by - putting a price on carbon enters into their calculus, then utilities looking to replace geezer coal plants might turn to gas, renewables, and nuclear, which could drive down coal's share of U.S. electricity generation by more than half.
Here's the paydirt conclusion: "The U.S. is capable of almost halving its CO2 emissions by 2030 (up to 44 percent) through a secure and reliable fuel mix that is based on known technology that can easily be deployed at reasonable cost." Without a price on carbon.
Of course, a number of things would have to go right for this happy scenario to play out.
> Utilities would have to be convinced that gas is a safer economic bet than coal for replacing their old coal beaters.
> The Environmental Protection Agency would have to implement pending air quality regulations - e.g. mercury limits - without political interference from congressmen putting dollars and cents above public health.
> Gas producers tapping shale deposits would have to avoid mucking up drinking water aquifers and stirring up implacable opposition from communities in the shale gas belts.
> Energy efficiency would have to continue improving so as to tamp down demand growth.
> And renewables and nuclear would need practical solutions to their issues; renewables with integrating a high level of on-again, off-again resources into the grid, nukes with their accumulating quantities of spent fuel all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Still, a promising take-home message is that market dynamics might go a long way toward lowering U.S. emissions, even if congressmen are content to spend their time and salaries over the next several years playing schoolyard political games.
And there's one more thing to ponder. Not everyone is buying it, but there are a few voices popping up from the wilderness arguing that conventional estimates of coal reserves overstate the quantity and heat content of coal that's still in the ground, which they say calls into question the assertion that coal will be cheap and abundant for decades to come.
China is clearly worried that its demand is outrunning its domestic supply; a recent Wall Street Journal article detailed talk in Beijing of capping domestic output, fretting over supply bottlenecks, and concerns about the lower quality of coal in frontier mining regions compared to older coal production regions that face depletion.
There are spots of tarnish emerging on King Coal's crown. As the end approaches for 2010, a thoroughly disappointing year for climate stewardship, the signs that all might not be well for dirty coal bear watching.
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