You’ve heard the news. 30% of arctic ice gone. Floods, storms, fires. We’re pushing the earth over a very big climate cliff. The time for talk is over. We need to act now.
Human-made carbon is pouring into the earth’s atmosphere. According to the Independent, global warming will speed up, due to a sharp rise in greenhouse gases. During the last 50 years, carbon increased by an average 1.3 parts per million every year. In 2002 and 3, it was 2 parts per million more per year. Unpublished reports for 2005 make it 2.2 parts per million. It’s climbing rapidly, and piling up each and every year we burn fossil fuels.
Coal is one of the biggest single sources of carbon dioxide. It’s the dirtiest fossil fuel we burn. There are plenty of cleaner alternatives. It’s an emergency. We need to stop coal mining and coal burning now, today.
This isn’t just an environmentalist demand. A wide range of governments, scientific institutions, and planners have recognized that coal has to go. One of the leading examples for a rapid phase out of coal is Ontario, the most industrialized province of Canada.
The Ontario government has promised a complete phase out of coal power by 2007. But Ontario’s unreliable nuclear power plants, rapidly reaching their age limits, led past governments to increase coal by 120% between 1995 and 2003.
Yet with limitations on coal use, the province has not experienced brownouts or blackouts, and continues to grow economically. There has been a positive response to government initiatives to produce more alternative energy. Although most power generation stations are government owned, now Ontario has opened bidding to private companies, to supply cleaner energy. Some industrial companies have added co-generation facilities as well. A report on the phase out in Ontario is available from www.toronto.ca and from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. They demand that the capital city, Toronto, phase out purchases of electricity generated from coal, in order to fight off the growing problem of smog alerts.
On June 16th, 2005, the government of Ontario announced a delay in its deadline to shut down all its coal fired plants. The largest power station will remain in service until 2009. And Ontario will try to refurbish two of its broken nuclear reactors. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters applauded the extension of coal use, warning of blackouts, and billions of dollars in damage to the economy, if coal power plants were closed down.
During the last two years, the Toronto area had a record number of days where residents were advised to stay indoors. Hospitals and clinics are seeing increased breathing problems due to air pollution, and coal burning plants top the list of suspects, both in Canada and in the United States to the south.
This is critical. So far, the most earnest attempts to phase out coal, whether in Canada or China, arise not out of fear of a damaged climate, but from popular pressure for clean air to breath. Smoggy air is an equal opportunity killer. We all breathe.
Even if coal pollution appears to blow away, it inexorably adds to the growing carbon content of Earth’s atmosphere. Whatever we may say, or promise for 2012, or 2050, the climate and it’s delicate balances of living systems, are being damaged. If we knew for certain that burning coal, today, will tip ocean currents, drive millions into refugee camps due to drought, and flood millions more, wouldn’t we stop? We do know for certain. The facts are in. Will we act to survive?
Studies by the World Watch Institute estimate the coal particulates and sulfur dioxide leads directly to a half million premature deaths every year. Millions of new respiratory illnesses are created by coal burning. Cities like Beijing and Delhi are close to the smog levels found in London in 1952, where 4,000 people died. Almost 2 million people a year die just from coal smoke from cooking. Asian air pollution now reaches the US West coast, and coats the upper atmosphere.
Governments fund these deaths, and the coming climate chaos. At least $63 billion dollars of public money goes into subsidizing the coal industry – and that doesn’t really count the railways, ports, roads, and other public infrastructure built and used for the coal trade. Counting these indirect subsidies, in 1999 Germany paid out a whopping $21 billion to the coal industry – that’s more than $70,000 dollars for each miner!
Coal is a dominant player all over the world. Coal owners have had direct access to political leaders to decades, and fund countless candidates.
ENN, the Environmental News Network, reports that the United States and Denmark still depend on coal for 53 and 74 percent of electricity. South Africa and China are the most coal-reliant developing countries, with 78 and 73 percent shares of coal in overall energy use.
For a coal phase out to succeed, the World Watch Institute recommends a fair transition for affected workers. Coal miners number 10 million worldwide – less than one-third of one percent of the global workforce.
To minimize the dislocation of workers, the institute recommends following the lead of governments in China and the United Kingdom who have located solar cell manufacturing sites near abandoned coal mines.
In November 2003, an independent review, commissioned by the World Bank, recommended the Bank stop financing coal projects “immediately” – and end investments in oil production by 2008. But a series of 19 major banks, including Citibank and Barclays, want the World Bank to keep financing new coal projects, to keep on paying to wreck the climate. The World Bank caved in. Money is more important.
There are environmentalists who capitulate to the need for coal power. David Hawkins, the director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council says our political systems cannot give up coal. It’s relatively cheap, and abundant. So Hawkins is supporting the proposed would-be demonstration plant for zero emission coal burning, called FutureGen.
In the FutureGen model – nothing has been built, or even announced – the coal would be gasified first, carbon dioxide and other pollutants would be filtered out, and the cleaner gas burned to make power. The smokestack emissions would also be captured, and driven down into a repository below the earth, perhaps in an old mine, or oil field. That is the hope to limit climate change. Of course, it’s already much to late for distant plans. Climate change is upon us, and accumulating strength in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, humans cut the tops off mountains, strip away the layers of living things, to make their black gouges in the earth, to power our gaudy display of lights and all the toys that Carbon Santa brings.
There are other moves away from coal. Lester Brown tell us:
“The United Kingdom, which used coal to launch the Industrial Revolution more than two centuries ago, cut coal use by 40 percent between 1990 and 2001 mainly by substituting natural gas.”
Britain’s coal miners have declined from more than a million workers, in their glory days, to less than 10,000 today. Britain’s largest coal pit, the Selby operation in Yorkshire, was allowed to close in 2002.
Lester Brown also says:
“Germany, Europe’s largest industrial economy, cut coal use by a comparable 41 percent from 1990 to 2001. Reduced subsidies, gains in energy productivity, and the massive harnessing of wind energy, means the use of coal may be on its way out in Germany as well.”
Read Lester Brown’s press briefing on December 3, 2003 at earth-policy.org.
But Germany continues to subsidize coal mines, and just completed Europe’s largest coal plant installation. Despite legendary Greens, the country remains a carbon spout into the upper atmosphere.
Even the business publication The Economist, ran a cover story in July 2002 with the title: “Coal: Environmental Enemy Number 1”. The magazine called for a punitive carbon tax to discourage coal burning.
But the United States and Japan have increased coal use. Likely China and India are also pumping up the coal, despite diplomatic announcements. The exploding economies of South East Asia are getting their carbon drugs from that paragon of public virtue: Australia.
China claims it shut down thousands of small coal operations, due to safety concerns. Up to 5,000 Chinese coal miners die every year in widespread accidents. But China is also under pressure from city dwellers, including in the capital Beijing, due to horrible air quality. Many people moving outdoors wear breathing masks all the time. Children and old people are dying prematurely, by the tens of thousands, due to polluted air. Coal burning is one of the largest sources of localized air pollution. The government banned the use of low quality, high sulfur coal in the capital region.
The Chinese have an example of a widespread ban on environmentally damaging mining. In mid-October China banned all gold mining in Tibet, as a major source of pollution to that fragile environment.
This year, the Chinese government ordered almost 2,000 unregistered coal operations closed, and another 9,000 illegal coal pits shut down. At the end of August, 2005, the central government ordered officials at all levels to pull out of any coal mining investments. But the country still gets most of its power and heat from coal, operated huge coal operations, and imports still more, from countries like Australia and Canada.
The largest single coal polluting country, the United States, has barely whispered the idea of changing energy sources. There are movements to ban mountaintop removal mining, which chops out mountains and fills valleys with slag. Those impacted locally by coal smog have battled particular power stations. But there is no highly visible movement to save the climate by stopping coal use. The sleepers dig out dirty coal carbon, while complaining about the strange weather.
In Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter – read climate profiteer – the Green party promised to ban coal powered electricity if elected.
There have been a string of protests against coal use by Greenpeace. For example, on November 11th, 2000, in the Netherlands at Rotterdam, Greenpeace activists boarded the bulk carrier La Paloma, with its cargo of Australian coal. Campaigner Paul Horsman called for a phase out of not just coal, but of fossil fuels altogether, to protect the climate.
Three years ago, on June 9th 2003, Greenpeace took the opportunity of a major coal conference in Bali, Indonesia, to call for a complete global phase out of coal. Red Constantino, Climate and Energy Campaigner said bluntly:
“”The coal industry needs to clean up its act. Because of climate change, the only way it can do this is to phase itself out starting today not tomorrow.”
The oil company BP changed its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum – as a new vision for a company engaged in an unsustainable business. Likewise, the coal giants need to publish their plans to wind down their industry, to preserve Earth’s climate and it’s citizens.
According to Greenpeace, coal produces over 40 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions. It’s hardly a sundown industry. Between 1973 and 1993, global coal use rose by 36%. Coal burning exploded in Asia during those two decades, expanding 162%. Analysts predict Asia’s coal appetite, mainly fed by Australia, will grow by 14 percent a year, even while violent storms increase. All this explains why atmospheric carbon is skyrocketing.
So far, the idea of ending coal use on planet Earth is outlandish, perhaps impossible, for most people to imagine. A Technorati search, of millions of blogs, finds not one ready to end the carbon tragedy. As children of the industrial revolution, we are blinded by the drug that made it possible – even though we have clean renewable technologies to replace it.
Humans will spend trillions on the Iraq war, and zillions on arms. They will send polluting vehicles into distant space. But they cannot see past the black haze that brought them out of the fields into the factories. The sooty remains of a former carbon age, many millions of years ago, reproduces itself, through half evolved animals.
While there is an international plan to help newly industrializing countries switch away from CFCs, to save the ozone layer – there is no international agreement to install clean alternative energy instead of deadly coal. Climate agreements require a whole new plan to replace coal entirely, across the world, as a top priority of all governments and corporations.
Recent studies in Germany found that planting more trees cannot reduce greenhouse gases, cannot stop climate change. The only solution is to drastically reduce our carbon output. We are now in crisis mode. We need to end coal mining, and coal burning, around the world.
Try to imagine it. Talk about it. Act where you are.
This report comes from Radio Ecoshock, the Net’s only all environment radio station. Tune in free at www.ecoshock.org.