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Why Do We Still Use Coal?

As we heard from Jojo Mehta, the co-founder of Stop Ecocide, companies aren’t going to magically change their ways to save the world unless we literally force them to do it.

Check out her interview with Mila here:

Last week, we heard from Leah Stokes, who broke down how companies and utilities in the energy sector actively undermine attempts to rein in carbon emissions. Before that, we heard from eminent scientists like Katherine Richardson and activists like Bill McKibben who agree that it isn’t too late yet, but unless we change our fossil fuel consumption we’re staring at a hot, bleak future.

The world has woken up to climate change, and it’s widely known that coal is one of the dirtiest sources of power around. So why are we using so much of it, and why isn’t that likely to change?

To start, it’s worth noting how truly awful coal is for the planet, and for people. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s list of fossil fuels ranked by CO2 emissions per Btu (British Thermal Unit), coal is ranked number one. It’s also number two, number three, and number four (different kinds of coal). We think of natural gas as terrible for the environment – and it is – but coal releases nearly twice the amount of CO2 per Btu.

According to Our World in Data, approximately five million people die prematurely every year from air pollution. High end estimates in the US credit coal with about 52,000 deaths a year thanks to fine particulate matter. The Health and Environment Alliance estimate the sickness caused by coal costs Europe (and only Europe) about $70B per year.

On top of this, coal mining is incredibly dangerous, because it releases flammable methane and coal dust when extracted. Strip mining and mountaintop removal are safer for workers, but horrific for the local ecosystems.

Coal is an extremely dirty fuel source and extracting it is dangerous for humans and devastating for nature. So why do we still use so much of it?

The answer, as with most ecologically destructive practices, is money. Firstly, coal is abundant and cheap. It’s cheap because we still live in a world where carbon emissions are not taxed (which our guest Jerry Taylor advocates changing). It’s reasonably efficient at creating electricity, and its abundance makes it highly viable from an economic standpoint.

Coal is also still the dominant energy source in 18 states because the infrastructure is already there. It’s cheaper to continue using existing facilities to create dirty power than to transition plants, workers, and parts of the grid over to renewables. Leah Stokes explained to us last week that many utility companies around the country sunk debt into building, renewing, and refitting coal plants in the last 20 years. If they abandon these plants to switch to green energy, they’re eating that debt. For many, it makes more sense to continue operating these plants until they have paid off their debt, which is years or decades away.

Despite this, coal usage is decreasing rapidly in the US. It fell 18% in 2019, the largest fall ever recorded, and it’s not about to have a comeback, thanks to falling oil and renewable prices. The story elsewhere, especially in China and Southeast Asia, is the opposite. According to the New York Times, China burns half the world’s coal every year. Japan has added coal back to its energy roster because of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. There are an additional 1,200 coal-powered plants under construction in Asia, as developing nations try to meet the energy demands of a growing populace. There is hope some of these facilities can be short-term, but once the plants are built, they’re likely to stay in operation for as long as economically feasible.

With coal, as with so much in the climate fight, the bottom line is money. We can still change environmental policy, subsidize renewables, and phase out fossil fuels, but that window is closing, and closing fast.


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