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Dirty Coal is Winning

Authors: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Varun Rai
January 3, 2009


Saving the planet was never going to be easy. Avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate changes will require cutting carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent over the next four decades, scientists say. After years of deadlock, 2009 was shaping up to be the year the world got its environmental act together. Now it's looking like the global environment may be one of the biggest losers in the current financial crisis.

Lower prices for oil--which some analysts predict will hit $25 a barrel--is bad news for investors in green energy. But the big winner is likely to be dirty coal. It already accounts for about 40 percent of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming. The fuel is plentiful, and its price has fallen about one third since last summer's peak to $80 per ton. In China, the world's largest coal burner, prices have fallen by half and are likely to plummet further. All the top emitters of greenhouse gases depend mainly on coal for electric power. Dirty coal is now getting cheaper relative to other fossil fuels, such as natural gas and oil.

New "clean coal" plants would capture carbon and store it away underground, or at least to extract as much energy as possible for each kilogram of carbon pollution. The problem is that clean-coal plants are a lot more expensive than conventional "dirty coal" technology, and the financial crisis is obliterating schemes that would have paid the extra cost. Before the crisis, a team at Stanford University found that the world was investing only about 1 percent of what's needed on advanced coal technologies to meet carbon-emissions targets. Now a spate of canceled projects darkens the picture.


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