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One of the key sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions is the generation of electric power from fossil fuels. The use of oil, gas and coal for electricity generation accounts for roughly 25 per cent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions (Science Daily 2007). Targeting the emissions from these concentrated sources of carbon dioxide represents, therefore, one of the best ways of reducing global carbon emissions.

Of the three fossil fuels, coal is by some margin the largest source of atmospheric carbon dioxide from power stations. According to the US Energy Information

Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora's Box?, eds. Brian Launder and Michael Thompson. Published by Cambridge University Press. © Cambridge University Press 2010.

Paul Breeze Table 5.1 Coal use for power generation

Proportion of total electrical Country power from coal (%)

South Africa 93

China 82

Australia 80

India 75

USA 51

Africa 46

South Korea 36

Europe 30

Russia 30

Japan 22

Source: Breeze (2007b).

Administration (2007), coal accounted for 43 per cent of electricity production in 2004, close to twice the next most important source, natural gas. On top of this, coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than natural gas, thereby amplifying its significance further. So, any reduction in emissions from coal-fired plants can have a significant impact globally. (It is worth bearing in mind, however, that much of the emission-reduction technology applicable to coal plants can be applied to gas-fired plants too.)

The economics of coal-fired power generation make it most cost-effective to build large power stations. Individual plants are often capable of generating 1000 MW or more of power and these power plants are major sources of carbon dioxide. Some of them are among the largest single sources of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth. Equally, reducing or eliminating the emissions from a single power plant of this size would provide a large environmental benefit.

From an environmental perspective, it would be preferable to abandon completely the burning of fossil fuels, and especially of coal, as a means to generate electricity. Unfortunately, that is not an option for either the short or the medium term. The world's great economies are driven by coal combustion and none of them is going to abandon its use easily. Table 5.1 lists the proportion of electricity derived from coal combustion for a range of the world's major economies. The USA derives 51 per cent of its electricity from coal, India relies on the fuel for 75 per cent of its electrical power, China for 82 per cent and South Africa for 93 per cent. All these countries have massive coal reserves; but even South Korea and Japan, which have negligible coal reserves of their own, burn large amounts of imported coal to generate electricity.

Table 5.2 Predicted global power generation

Global output (million MWh)

2004 16 424

2010 19 554

2015 22 289

2020 24 959

2025 27 537

2030 30 364

Source: US Energy Information Administration (2007).

Indeed, rather than a reduction in its use, the consumption of coal for power generation is expected to increase substantially over the next 20 years. Coal's contribution to total world energy consumption, covering all uses including power generation, is expected to rise from 26 per cent in 2004 to 28 per cent in 2030 (US Energy Information Administration 2007). Approximately 65 per cent of all coal shipped is used to generate electricity and coal's share of power generation is expected to increase from 43 per cent in 2004 to 45 per cent by 2030. This must be taken against a background of increasing power generation to meet rising demand. Again, according to figures from the US Energy Information Administration, generation output is expected to increase by 2.4 per cent each year from 2004 to 2030. The result, as Table 5.2 shows, is that total output rises from 16 424 million MWh in 2004 to 30 364 million MWh in 2030.

The message from these figures is that coal consumption is likely to rise substantially over the medium term. Coal is a cheap source of electricity and it is available in large quantities in many parts of the world. The Western world has built much of its prosperity on coal and now the developing world is intent on doing the same. If greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced then this must, at least for the next 20-30 years, take place against a background of increased coal use for power generation.

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