the end of coal or the end of us

This week, Scientific American announced The End of Coal Burning in the U.S.

This week, Scientific American announced The End of Coal Burning in the U.S.

The American environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency, has released its planned new carbon emissions standards for public consultation, and if they go ahead coal-fired power plants will never be able to meet them. This means that there can be no new coal-fired startups, and older plants could soon be forced to close.

Coal is dirty energy. It is the largest producer of human-made mercury. It leaves behind millions of tonnes of toxic ash and sludge. Mountaintop-removal mining, an increasingly popular means of extracting coal, causes untold damage to waterways. A 2008 World Health Organization study found that pollution from coal caused one million deaths annually worldwide, about a third of all deaths due to air pollution.

But it is in the area of greenhouse gas emissions that coal shows its darkest side. By far the world’s worst emitter of CO2, coal is impossible to burn cleanly. Even with the use of scrubbers, coal still comes out dirtier than any other fuel, and talk of carbon storage is still just talk; nobody has yet proven that it can work.

In the meantime, the climate crisis has passed from a dire prediction to a present-day reality. Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves are disappearing at an alarming rate. If this trend is not reversed, sea levels could rise by seven metres, flooding almost every coastal city in the world.

Warming ocean temperatures are degrading coral reefs, probably the most biodiverse habitat on the planet. Rising sea levels are destroying shoreline habitat.

On land, hotter, drier weather is causing wildfires, and may be related to a rise in the number of hurricanes. It’s bad, but it could get a lot worse.

As long ago as 2007, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, warned that we were approaching a “dangerous tipping point” beyond which climate change could become an irreversible catastrophe. He predicted that the point of no return could be reached as soon as 2016. Others have since backed that finding.

With this in mind, a number of climate scientists are calling for a complete stop to the use of coal by 2015, along with other radical measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions before they destroy us. And while the new EPA rules take a step in that direction, there is no plan to reduce coal mining in the U.S. or in Canada. Chinese factories and power plants will gladly consume whatever coal we will send them, for as long as it lasts, and in much dirtier conditions than either of our countries would permit at home.

North America’s largest coal port is Delta, B.C.‘s Westshore Terminals, which ships about 20 million tonnes of coal every year to Pacific Rim customers, China being the biggest by far. Last weekend, a group of protesters blocked a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train carrying U.S. coal to Westshore for shipment to Asia.

If you’re picturing Black Block hoodlums in hoodies clashing with police and smashing windows, think again. This was a peaceful act of civil disobedience by a fairly middle-class group of protesters, some of them prominent academics, who were willing to be arrested for what they know to be the overriding issue of their generation – the struggle to prevent rampant capitalism from driving the planet to the point of no return.

The owner of the BNSF Railroad is American billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett. In 2007, in response to public pressure, Buffett cancelled plans to build coal-fired power plants in the U.S. In an open letter, the B.C. protesters challenged Buffett on the contradiction:

“You have spoken eloquently about the need for shared sacrifice. But with all respect, sir, when it comes to climate change it appears that other people are doing all the suffering while you profit from the very causes of the problem …You are in many ways an important figure of conscience in the world. We appeal to you to seize this opportunity and make a bold decision on coal.”

By coincidence, the protest also took place on the week that Canada’s environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, blasted the Harper government on its total failure to take any steps toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector.

After walking away from the Kyoto Accord, the Harper government set itself much less stringent targets, but as Vaughan so eloquently understates it, “It is unlikely that enough time is left to develop and establish regulations that together will contribute sufficient GHG reductions” to meet even these inadequate standards.

There are those who would have us believe that the climate change crisis is a scientific fiction, just as they said of the smoking/cancer link 20 years ago. There may be a sillier fantasy in the world, but there can hardly be a more self-destructive one.

For all those who have died of smoking-related cancers, it’s too late to say, sorry. Will we dawdle on climate change until the same is true of the whole planet?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.