Proportionality

The editors of the New York Times are concerned about coal consumption:

If we keep burning coal and petroleum to power our society, we’re cooked — and a lot faster than we thought. The United Nations scientific panel on climate change issued a terrifying new warning on Monday that continued emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants and vehicles will bring dire and irreversible changes by 2040, years earlier than previously forecast. The cost will be measured in trillions of dollars and in sweeping societal and environmental damage, including mass die-off of coral reefs and animal species, flooded coastlines, intensified droughts, food shortages, mass migrations and deeper poverty.

The worst impacts can be avoided only by a “far-reaching and unprecedented” transformation of the global energy system, including virtually eliminating the use of coal as a source of electricity, the panel warned.

Sadly, their zeal appears primarily to be a vehicle for attacking President Trump:

Yet President Trump, who has questioned the accepted scientific consensus on climate change, continues to praise “clean beautiful coal” and has directed his Environmental Protection Agency to reverse major strides undertaken by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. This is unbelievably reckless. In addition to undermining the fight against climate change, the president’s efforts to prop up the dirtiest of all fuels will also exact a significant toll on public health, on the hearts and lungs of ordinary Americans.

Whether you agree with the findings of the UN’s panel or not, whether you think anthropogenic global warming is real or not, coal is problematic. Those dramatic pictures illustrating the incredibly poor air quality in Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities are primarily showing us the effects of airborne particulates, primarily from coal-burning power plants. Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other pollutants are also produced.

Consider the graph at the top of this post. Were the United States to eliminate burning coal as a means of producing electricity entirely it would reduce world consumption of coal by less than 10%. If you concern is environmental, you cannot escape the conclusion that China must reduce its dependence on coal and India and other Asian countries must not increase their use of coal. Chinese pollution does not remain in China as any meteorologist living on the West Coast of the U. S. can tell you.

What should we be doing if we wish to reduce our use of coal?

  • We should be seeking alternatives to the economic activity that coal production represents.
  • We should promote the development and construction of nuclear power plants, particularly small modular ones based on thorium.
  • We should promote the production of natural gas.
  • We should discourage our consumption of products manufactured in China.

Due to their variability there is no such thing as pure wind and solar power generation. They all have fossil fuel backups. Nuclear power is the only truly carbon-free way that we have of producing electricity reliably. In its irrational zeal to eliminate its use of nuclear power, Germany is actually increasing its use of coal for power generation, something not reflected in the graph at the top of the page.

That’s what proportionality demands. I wish the New York Times could see issues in terms other than those of partisan politics.

12 comments… add one
  • steve

    “We should be seeking alternatives to the economic activity that coal production represents.”

    Solar alone has more than twice as many jobs as coal provides. Coal mining is dominated by the big strip mines out west that dont need many people to function. Trump is trying to prop up the underground miming prominent in the east. When they are 1/10th as productive that doesn’t look sustainable to me. A big loss in those communities. I work in the area and see that. They love Trump, but those jobs are really going to come back.

    Steve

  • Those Appalachian jobs are the ones I was referring to. If you’re going to argue for ending dependence on coal as both the NYT and WaPo have, I think there’s a moral obligation to explain what you plan to do with all the workers you want to put out of work. The jobs being created are not in the areas in which those people live.

  • steve

    Even if you dont change coal policy, those jobs are fading away. 90% less productive isn’t sustainable. Bringing new jobs to the area is going to be really hard. The kids all move away, except for those who have alcohol and drug issues, or trouble with the law. The schools can be awful. One of charge nurses is the sister of the guy in charge of maintenance at the local high school. We went to his pig roast when they celebrated the parents 50th anniversary. The school is a dump and he knows it, but just doesn’t have the resources to do much. It is a miracle he keeps it running at all. Local infrastructure is poor. It is not uncommon to end up on a road with signs that say “drive on this road at your own risk.” So you can talk about moving jobs back into this area, but what company wants to have its employees work here? All of those guys hanging out drinking, just waiting for the coal jobs to come back? How many of those are going to be viable employees now?

    If we have a moral responsibility to these people, it seems like maybe it starts with being realistic. Those old coal jobs probably aren’t, absent some tech change, coming back. A lot of them need to move. And if we are going to make the areas live again, it will take a long period of sustained investment.

    Steve

  • And if we are going to make the areas live again, it will take a long period of sustained investment.

    And that’s my point. We aren’t going to concentrate the entire population of the country into the West Coast and New York megalopolises. If we are to sustain investment it will require persistent attention which means that when you advocate something that will hurt areas of the country you need to advocate measures that will help them at the same time.

  • Guarneri

    You can’t make a sufficient amount of steel for the world without coal. Coking coal. That’s just physical chemistry reality. All you can do is export your icky industries to foreign countries. You just fool yourself doing that.

    For electricity, the natural gas conversion is well underway. Good. Solar is, and will always be, a niche source. Why people keep fighting that baffles me. I hear 2040 is the new doomsday. Well, better move inland, because China and India don’t give a damn, and solar doesn’t have a chance of advancing far enough by then.

    If an environmentalist or AGW-er isn’t screaming bloody murder for small, distributed nuclear and carbon capture they are dimwits or have an alternative agenda. They knowingly lie. Pursue solar if you must, but the record of private investment is awful. Pursue hydro if you want. Works great in the NW. In Ohio, not so much.

    As for the NYT, well. These are the same guys who, after umpteen IRS audits, thought they had found the smoking gun Trump tax fraud. Who knew NYT journalist majors actually double majored in tax accounting?

  • If an environmentalist or AGW-er isn’t screaming bloody murder for small, distributed nuclear and carbon capture they are dimwits or have an alternative agenda.

    You might have noticed that I advocate both.

    I have to admit that I don’t understand those who don’t but I have noticed it for a half century. Some are Luddites. Some imagine there’s a way for us to accomplish whatever it is they want without reducing the population by 85%.

  • Guarneri

    I of course have noted. In fact, it was shamelessly ripping off your research that converted me to a distributed nuclear footprint advocate from an advocate of large, more concentrated facilities.

    I can draw no other conclusion about the AGW crowd and their advocacy of obviously impossible to implement or ineffective policies than that they have other agendas. You can’t believe the world hangs in the balance while advocating policy that will accomplish nothing. I of course don’t really think the scientific community are dimwits. But they, and academia, are notoriously prone to jealousies, biases and grant seeking. They don’t have a profit motive; they compete in other ways. That may harsh some people’s mellow, but its a fact.

  • There are other reasons to like small modular nuclear reactors besides low to non-existent carbon emissions, lower cost, and greater security. Resilience is a major consideration.

  • Ben Wolf

    I have to admit that I don’t understand those who don’t but I have noticed it for a half century. Some are Luddites. Some imagine there’s a way for us to accomplish whatever it is they want without reducing the population by 85%.

    I don’t see a reason presently to think it can be an answer. Nobody wants a nuclear plant near them and nobody wants the liability of owning one. Nuclear power generation in my home state of South Carolina has been a disaster, and that doesn’t include the costs and risks of storage. Carbon capture would be great but still isn’t commercially viable on a national scale.

    Thorium has been suggested for a decade, but we have more questions than answers on whether it lives up to the hype.

  • TarsTarkas

    Germany’s denuclearization has had a number of profound effects, not all of which have been widely reported (by intention in many cases):
    1. Major energy price increases.
    2. Brown-outs and rolling blackouts.
    3. Increased carbon dioxide generation from having to burn more fossil fuels to make up for the lost energy production.
    4. Massive fraud through carbon credits.
    5. Increased reliance on Russia for natural gas (gee, how could that go possibly wrong, Mr. Schroeder!)
    6. Major environmental degradation, just done off-site to placate the local greenies (via ‘green’ credits for burning wood, a ‘renewable’ resource, harvested via clear-cutting of forests in, guess where, the southeastern USA!)
    And Angela Merkel wonders why native Germans are a bit ticked with her?

  • With respect to your point #4, I don’t believe it is appreciated that nearly all of Europe’s reduction in emissions have just been moving emissions from one pocket to another. Exporting your heavy industry to China actually increases emissions rather than decreasing them. But it also allows you to claim that you’ve reduced emissions.

    With respect to your #6, I’m aware of that and think it’s an outrage. Use of imported wood pellets is just crazy. Their use should be limited to what you can produce domestically. They don’t transport themselves, you know.

  • steve

    “You can’t believe the world hangs in the balance while advocating policy that will accomplish nothing. I of course don’t really think the scientific community are dimwits”

    My experience has been that when you actually communicate with said scientists, they are pretty reasonable and are OK with the idea of nukes, and realize we will need fossil fuels for a long time. It is when you accept the characterization of scientists bandied about by the right, that you form such an opinion.

    Steve

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