Phasing out coal

Environmental concerns and subsidy cuts fuel global decline.

provided by Worldwatch Institute


nvironmental and economic trends have made a global phaseout of coal both necessary and feasible, reports a new article by the Worldwatch Institute. Although coal was dubbed "The Bridge to the Future" as recently as the 1980s, its use has actually declined during the 1990s, experiencing a 2.1 percent drop in 1998.

"Coal's share of world energy, which peaked at 62 percent in 1910, is down to 23 percent -- roughly where it was in 1860," notes Worldwatch research associate Seth Dunn, author of "King Coal's Weakening Grip on Power" in the September/October issue of World Watch Magazine. "While coal's market price is at an historic low, its environmental and health costs have never been higher."

Hastening coal's decline is imperative if climate change is to be slowed in the next century, said Dunn. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, releasing 29 percent more carbon per unit of energy than oil and 80 percent more than natural gas. It accounts for 43 percent of annual global carbon emissions -- approximately 2.7 billion tons. Coal is also the most abundant of the fossil fuels, with an estimated 1,000-year reserve. But burning the entire resource would release 3 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, five times above the safe limit identified by scientists for averting serious climatic disruptions.

Two main ingredients of coal smoke are particulate and sulfur dioxide pollution, which cause 500,000 premature deaths and millions of new respiratory illnesses each year in urban areas worldwide. Several cities, including Beijing and Delhi, are near the pollution levels that London experienced during its famous "fog" that took 4,000 lives in 1952. Today's fogs are transcontinental travelers: dust clouds from Asian coal now reach the US West Coast. In rural areas, coal smoke from cooking accounts for as many as 1.8 million deaths globally.

Piecemeal attempts to deal with coal's health and environmental effects have created new, more chronic problems. Higher smokestacks, built to lessen coal's local air pollution, have led to widespread acid rain and deposition. Acid rain legislation initially focused on reducing emissions of sulfur, but declining sulfur levels have in many places been offset by nitrogen emissions. Primarily because of nitrogen overload, hundreds of European lakes remain acid-stressed, and half the US Adirondacks' lakes and ponds are projected to become unable to support life by 2040. Meanwhile, acid hazes cover the Indian Ocean, reduce wheat yields in India, and cause $14 billion annually in damages in China. Acid rain legislation has had other unintended environmental consequences, including a hunt for low-sulfur coal which has resulted in massive strip mining near World Heritage Sites in Canada, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and the uprooting of indigenous peoples from Australia to Arizona.

"It's time to move beyond this piecemeal approach and toward a more comprehensive strategy to phase out coal," said Dunn. One key to the "de-coalonization" process is reducing the large subsidies that encourage its use in some countries. China has more than halved its coal subsidy rates since 1984, a move which contributed to a 5.2 percent drop in Chinese coal consumption in 1998. Belgium, France, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom have collectively halved coal use since slashing or ending coal supports over the last fifteen years. Opportunities exist for further reductions: remaining coal subsidies total some $63 billion annually -- $30 billion in industrial nations, $27 billion in the former Eastern bloc, and $6 billion in China and India. In Germany, the total is $21 billion, including direct supports averaging more than $70,000 per miner.

The boldest initiatives to cut back on coal are in China. The government has introduced a tax on high-sulfur coal to encourage a switch to the country's natural gas and renewable energy sources. In Beijing, officials aiming to phase out coal from the city center have banned high-sulfur coal, established 40 "coal-free zones," and made plans to construct natural gas pipelines. Four other Chinese cities -- Shanghai, Lanzhou, Xian, and Shenyang -- have followed suit with plans to phase out coal.

Despite the fuel's decline, many "colonies of coal" remain, in rich and poor nations alike. In the industrial world, the United States and Denmark still depend on coal for 53 and 74 percent of electricity, respectively. South Africa and China are the most coal-reliant developing countries, with respective 78 and 73 percent shares of coal in overall energy use. Globally, thirteen countries continue to depend on coal for at least one-quarter of their total energy.

For a coal phaseout to succeed, a fair transition for affected workers will need to be managed. Already, coal miners number just 10 million worldwide -- less than one-third of one percent of the global work force. These jobs are disappearing quickly, as cost-cutting practices lower prices but also slash employment. In 1924, US coal mines employed 705,000 miners; today, they employ less than 82,000. Only 13,000 union coal miners remain in the United Kingdom, down from 1.2 million in 1978. China has lost 870,000 coal jobs over the last five years and the government plans to close down 25,800 coal mines this year. To minimize the dislocation for workers, governments in both China and the United Kingdom are locating solar cell manufacturing sites near abandoned coal mines.

  The Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to fostering the evolution of an environmentally sustainable society one in which human needs are met in ways that do not threaten the health of the natural environment or the prospects of future generations. Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1904; (202) 452-1999; e-mail; website www.worldwatch .org