Facing up to coal

The politics of coal have already been alluded to briefly but it is worth emphasizing its significance once again. Coal is a cheap, widely available, high energy-density fuel. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has provided the energy that has driven industry in the West. Indeed, coal is arguably the fount of Western prosperity. Today it continues to provide both energy and energy security in many Western countries and particularly the USA where, as noted, it accounts for over 50 per cent of electricity generation.

The recognition of greenhouse warming and the identification of carbon dioxide emissions as a primary cause have led to a reappraisal of fossil-fuel use. As a result international efforts are taking place, under the auspices of the United Nations, to reach a comprehensive agreement to control and eventually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when the economies of two major developing nations, India and China, are growing rapidly. And, like the Western nations before them, they are growing on the back of coal. It is unrealistic to expect either of these nations, or any of the other developing nations that currently rely on coal, to sacrifice their prosperity for the sake of the planet. Any international agreement will therefore have to take this into account. In practice, this means that while Europe (and one hopes, eventually, the USA) will aim for drastic cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions, coal use will continue to increase. If, therefore, overall emissions are to be limited, then technological solutions based around coal use will have to be implemented. Fortunately these already exist. Applied pragmatically, they can do a lot to ameliorate the problems associated with coal combustion.

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