David Suzuki: Dirty fuel should be consigned to the coal bin of history

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      More than anything else, coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution. It was, and still is, plentiful and cheap. It’s also always been relatively easy to get at, especially if you don’t mind sending kids into mines, endangering the lives of miners, or blasting the tops off mountains.

      Coal is an 18th-century fuel source, but we’re still relying on it for much of our energy needs in the 21st century. Because it’s so abundant and inexpensive, there’s been little incentive to switch to cleaner but often more expensive sources.

      Burning coal pollutes the air, land, and water and is a major driver of climate change. Emissions from coal combustion contain sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury, arsenic, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, lead, small particles, and other toxic materials. These cause acid rain, smog, damage to forests and waterways, and a range of serious health problems in humans, from lung disease to cancer.

      And, as University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver concluded after comparing the impacts of burning tar sands oil to burning coal, “We will live or die by our future consumption of coal.” That doesn’t mean the tar sands are okay; it’s just that there’s a lot more coal in the world, and the impacts of mining and burning it are more severe.

      Weaver stressed that, “While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally, the tar sands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments.”

      I agree with Weaver that the “world needs to transition away from fossil fuels if it wants to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate system. That means coal, unconventional gas, and unconventional oil all need to be addressed.”

      Canada uses more than half its coal to generate electricity and for industry. We export about 40 per cent, much of it to Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Canada also imports coal, mainly because it’s cheaper to ship it from the U.S. to eastern provinces than from Western Canada.

      About 18 percent of Canada’s electricity is from coal, less than the global 40 percent average, and much less than countries like China, which uses coal to generate about 80 per cent of its electricity. But use varies across the country. According to Natural Resources Canada, “Coal is used to produce about 74 percent of the electricity used in Alberta, 63 percent in Saskatchewan, 60 per cent in Nova Scotia, and 18 percent in Ontario. The coal not used to generate electricity is consumed by Canada’s steel, cement and other industries.”

      Rather than looking for cleaner ways to generate energy, many industrial and government leaders have been touting “clean coal”. This means trying to reduce some of the pollutants and CO2 by “scrubbing” them from emissions or by burying them underground in a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS). It can also mean converting coal to gas.

      These are inadequate solutions. They don’t get rid of all the pollutants. Carbon capture is expensive and mostly unproven and we don’t fully understand the consequences of burying carbon dioxide. The governments of Canada and Alberta have committed $3 billion in taxpayer money since 2008 for demonstration CCS projects, mostly for coal operations, but some for the tar sands. Even with CCS, coal plants would not be required to eliminate their CO2 emissions, just reduce them.

      As long as coal remains so inexpensive to obtain and burn, with few or no dollars paid for the environmental damage it causes, it will continue to be used. And that endangers us all. We need leadership on this. As Andrew Weaver said, “The atmosphere has traditionally been viewed as an unregulated dumping ground. There is no cost associated with emitting greenhouse gases. Economists call this a market failure. To correct this failure, a price is needed on emissions.”

      We are well beyond the 18th century. With energy, it’s time to look to the future and not the past. That means finding ways to encourage clean energy development and discourage fossil fuel consumption. Carbon taxes and cap and trade must be part of the equation.

      Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

      Comments

      8 Comments

      NoLeftNutter

      Mar 21, 2012 at 9:06am

      Gee, Dave. Still drumming up donations on the back of the CAGW scam I see. Interesting how "carbon capture is expensive and mostly unproven" and yet the alternative fuel options that you tout, have taken tens of billions of dollars out of the world economy with little or no benefit. Why let the facts get in the way of a good old fahioned fund raising rant?

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      Robson Hood

      Mar 21, 2012 at 12:46pm

      Gee, NLN, how'd you lose it? Or is it just being squeezed so hard by the neo-con brainwash Harperite goons that you can't think straight? "tens of billions of dollars out of the world economy with little or no benefit" where did those "facts" come from? What is the world economy anyway? Who took the billions? Where did they put it, in a sock? Where's your proven and inexpensive carbon capture? Maybe Norway? The project was delayed to 2014, 2018, and then indefinitely. Latest MIT report says "Based on the studies analyzed, there is a consensus that using today’s capture technology would add 1.5-2¢/kWh to the busbar cost of electricity for an IGCC or NGCC power plant. For a PC plant, the incremental cost of electricity would be over 3¢/kWh."
      As for the sucess of getting it established. . . "The proposal, dubbed the Caledonia Clean Energy project, is one of the most ambitious so far unveiled in the trouble-hit race to build a fully operational commercial carbon capture power station in the UK. Several CCS proposals around the UK have been dropped, including what was then the most developed project at Longannet in Fife, and others have met intense opposition." The Guardian
      "It is also critical that CCS is seen as part of a portfolio of solutions and that we ensure adequate attention is also paid to more sustainable, low-impact solutions such as ramping up on renewable energy and energy efficiency. The urgent need to deal with Canada’s rising emissions (up 26 per cent since 1990) compels consideration of CCS, but it is not without environmental risks and barriers to implementation." Pembina Institute

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      NoLeftNutter

      Mar 21, 2012 at 1:51pm

      RH - You're in such a hurry to disagree that you misplaced your common sense. I'm no fan of the misplaced logic of carbon capture but Suzuki is the one denouncing carbon capture's cost effectiveness. Look at the amount of money being foolishly spent on "green alternatives" around the world and you'll see the tens of billions being pissed away. As for my leftie, Joyless Macphailure took it when whe was the finance minister and I had no more cash to give. I can show you the bite marks if you like. Next time, think before you hit send.

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      wondering

      Mar 21, 2012 at 3:55pm

      No coal, no gas, - what then?

      Donald Rennie

      Mar 21, 2012 at 7:53pm

      wondering; You forgot no oil, no nukes

      But to answer; Solar, wind and (existing) hydro. Plus conservation, better insulation, solar-heat retrofitting (where possible) and combustion-free transportation.

      Any objective comparison of a train and bicycle based transport system to the current system, could only conclude we are insane to accept one million road deaths per year.

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      Daniel Williamson

      Mar 22, 2012 at 9:22pm

      We need to start the process of developing power generating stations in space and beaming it down to earth. Yes it would cost several hundred trillion dollars but it would pay for itself in under 30 years.

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      GDWilliams

      Mar 23, 2012 at 12:41pm

      People simply need to get away from the notion that an endeavor undertaken by an individual or a government can or should rate the success or failure of it by whether its profitable or not.
      I realize that must be awfully attractive for those among us whose lack of cognitive complexity forces them to perceive the world in simplistic terms of black and white, good and evil, etc. But they are making their problem become a big problem for the rest of who don't necessarily see everything in terms of winners & losers, us vs them ONLY. Their "dominate or be dominated" mentality may have sufficed for cro magnon societies, but today's technologies being used in the same primitive way as always is a sure-fire path to complete collapse and possible extinction.
      Why is the same general subgroup of society that denies evolution that also denies anthro-climate disruptions? Because those are the people who accept or dismiss info on the basis of whether "they wanna!" or not. Not on determinations like the veracity and authority of the source, it's internal logic rational fit with what is already established as true regarding that topic...or the way the rest of at least try to assess whether we'll repeat it or not.

      Check out Altemeyer's (PhD-psychology) online ebook "The Authoritarians" for a close look at a portion of society that acquires knowledge and perceives reality in a fundamentally different manner than what the rest of us have long assumed to be universal. Amazing, frightening stuff!