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Why the world still warms to coal

Times Staff Writer

Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the crack cocaine of the developing world.

It is the inexpensive and plentiful fuel powering the rising economies of Asia -- and because of that, it has become one of the most intractable problems in combating global warming.

Even as the political will and grass-roots support to rein in rising carbon dioxide levels is growing, a large segment of the world is using more coal than ever.

The addiction threatens to undercut the landmark work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for work on global warming.

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In a series of reports this year, the panel outlined the causes and consequences of global warming, along with solutions to avoid its most serious effects. The final installment of the panel’s report -- a synthesis of its key findings approved by delegates from 140 countries -- was released Saturday.

The panel’s road map for action hinges on all the world’s biggest carbon polluters significantly reducing their emissions over the next 20 years.

But the reality is that for many countries, coal has been too good to give up.

“A gigaton of carbon here, a gigaton there -- we’ve got a disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality,” said David Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research group in Washington that recently compiled a database of the world’s 50,000 power plants.

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Leading the coal spree is China, which has more than doubled its CO2 emissions from coal since 2000 to more than 2.7 billions tons a year, according to the database.

Over the last eight years, China has built 603 coal-fired generators -- 64% of the new generators installed worldwide. India has added 133 generators, according to the database.

They’re not the only coal addicts.

In raw numbers, China has merely caught up to the United States, according to the database. In Europe, which has led the world in greenhouse gas reductions, coal use is expected to creep up in the next several years -- driven by rising oil and natural gas prices.

But a recent analysis by MIT climate experts found that even if the U.S. and Europe could somehow stop all their carbon emissions, the developing countries are on pace to create a climate crisis on their own.

Michael Wara, a Stanford University researcher who studies the emerging markets for greenhouse gases, said: “In 20 years, if India and China aren’t on board, the game is lost.”

Part of the problem with coal is its chemistry.

Because it contains more carbon atoms than other fossil fuels, burning it produces more carbon dioxide for each megawatt-hour of electricity -- roughly 25% more than oil and 66% more than natural gas.

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It’s cheap and abundant, and as Leon E. Clarke, an economist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, added: “Unlike conventional oil and gas, it can be treated as virtually inexhaustible over the coming century.”

For many nations, the surplus of coal holds strategic allure as well because it allows them to reduce dependence on their other addiction: oil.

Coal, which now accounts for 39% of the carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels, will soon surpass oil as the top emissions source -- and keep expanding its lead over the next two decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

China and the U.S. each account for about a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions. In the next decade, China is expected to move well ahead of the United States, and India will move past Russia into third place.

Since 1997, China has increased its coal-burning capacity from 145,000 megawatts to 370,000 megawatts, or about 28% of the global capacity, according to the power plant database.

Coal accounts for 77% of China’s power capacity, compared with 42% worldwide and 48% in the United States.

Weaning countries with that level of coal dependence is not expected to be easy.

The U.N. panel has said that worldwide carbon emissions must peak in the next decade and fall by at least 50% by 2050 to limit temperature rise to about 3 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent serious drought, sea level rise and ecological chaos.

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Its main solution is placing a cap on global emissions and charging polluters for every ton of carbon dioxide beyond that point. The carbon emissions would be bought and sold on a pollution market.

As the cap was lowered, the price of polluting would go up, eventually making it cheaper for polluters to shut down their old plants and build cleaner ones or add systems that would capture and store their pollution.

The panel estimated that reducing emissions to acceptable levels would cost about 3% of the world’s gross domestic product over the next two decades.

Europe has already created such a market, but other countries, particularly China, India and the United States, have rejected calls to cap their emissions.

China and India have argued that their buildup of power plants is to provide their citizens the benefits of development long enjoyed by the industrialized world.

The West uses much more energy per person, and its emissions over the last 150 years are still the main cause of the present concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The United States has refused to endorse any plan that would not force developing countries to cut their emissions.

The result is a political gridlock on carbon emissions.

One possible solution is to rely on economic pressure from the U.N. panel’s carbon market proposal.

If the price of carbon pollution got high enough, it could make it cost-effective for a company to go to China and clean up someone else’s coal power plant. That reduction in emissions could then be sold on the carbon market for a profit.

It is already possible on a small scale to capture carbon dioxide emissions and pump them into underground geological formations, though it is considered too expensive now to implement on a commercial scale.

Another possibility is a process known as integrated gasification, which converts coal into a cleaner-burning gas, capturing emissions in the process.

Coal plants in China and India could eventually be retrofitted with such systems.

“We need a bolt-on solution for those existing plants,” said Stanford’s Wara. “It’s going to be very difficult to tell those people to shut down those plants.”

Some experts said a more forceful approach was needed with China and India, or for that matter the United States.

A proposal by the European Union has raised the possibility of taxing imports from countries that don’t agree to mandatory emissions, said MIT economist John M. Reilly.

China and India are hardly immune from the effects of greenhouse gases.

Rising sea levels could eventually threaten coastal cities, and melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already threatening water supplies.

In addition, dirty air is already taking a toll on health in many Chinese cities.

But there is no way to determine what level of climate problems will drive developing countries to clean up.

The countries “are worried about the effects of climate change, but they’re even more worried about slowing economic growth,” said Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford climatologist.

alan.zarembo@latimes.com


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