In coal towns and boardrooms around the world, the promise of ‘clean coal’ is suddenly being touted as our best hope for energy security. But there’s a catch: coal remains the dirtiest source of energy on earth. As Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, puts it: ‘Clean coal is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan, like “fat-free donuts” or “interest-free loans”.’ The ‘clean coal’ claim is nothing more than expensive whitewash. Coal’s real appeal is that it’s cheap and abundant. It provides 25 per cent of global energy needs and produces 40 per cent of the world’s electricity. But it’s also an environmental scourge. The United States, which produces 50 per cent of its electricity from coal, has suffered environmental and public health disasters as a result. The American Lung Association reports that 24,000 Americans die prematurely each year from coal-fired power plant pollution. And despite some successful efforts to reduce the outputs that cause acid rain, those plants are still the largest human source of pollutants like mercury, which causes a host of miseries, including poisoning breast milk and devastating child development.
Then there’s carbon dioxide. The US, which has only recently been overtaken by China as the world’s foremost source of greenhouse gases, produces 40 per cent of its gross CO2 output from coal. To maintain this pace, US coal companies have taken to blowing the tops off coal-bearing mountains in a process aptly called mountaintop removal mining.
Now, the coal industry would like to pick up the pace – to replace foreign oil with ‘clean’ American coal. So the industry has created the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity – and set aside a $40 million marketing budget. The campaign has already convinced millions of Americans (and, apparently, both candidates for president) that ‘clean coal’ will save the day.
The backbone for this fiction is carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the notion that ‘clean’ coal plants will capture heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions and bury them underground. Some US states have already approved new coal plants that are said to be ‘carbon capture ready’.
But no effective carbon-capture technology currently exists, and even the most optimistic estimates put large-scale carbon capture 20 or 30 years in the future. ‘Carbon capture ready’ is a PR slogan – nothing more.
Leading science academies the world over agree fossil fuel emissions are adding to a heat-trapping blanket that is warming the planet in a dangerous way. They say we are nearing a tipping point that may fundamentally destabilize the earth’s climate systems, leading to catastrophic disruption of life as we know it. There are many things we can do. We can use energy more efficiently and invest in renewable technologies like wind, solar and geothermal. But ‘clean’ coal is a recipe for disaster.
We humans have often thrived on our ability to understand that what we do today has an impact on what happens tomorrow. But periodically we have fooled ourselves, choosing to rely on hope over evidence. The coal industry is betting $40 million that we can be fooled again. Don’t buy it. There is no ‘clean’ coal.