"Unless we deal with coal, we're not going to be able to deal with climate change," says WIRED contributing editor Charles Mann, whose cover story in the magazine's April issue tackles the tricky issue of 'clean coal.'
Clean coal sounds like an oxymoron: coal-fired plants are responsible for over 70% of the world's carbon dioxide, producing 10.4 billion tons per year, according to Mann. Coal also produces the vast majority of black carbon, the second-biggest contributor to climate change.
More than a century’s worth of coal remains beneath the surface -- an amount so large, two University of Victoria climate scientists calculated in 2012 -- that burning it all would raise Earth’s average temperature as much as 44 degrees Fahrenheit.
And while the Obama administration has put restrictions on coal in the U.S. "the economic case for coal in India and China are so powerful you simply can't replace it," Mann says, noting natural gas prices are five times higher in Asia vs. North America.
Coal currently produces more than 40% of the world's electricity and more coal-fired plants are coming: almost 1,200 new coal facilities in 59 countries are proposed for construction and the IEA estimates China will double its number of coal-fired power plants from around 2,000 currently by 2040, Mann reports.
China is "going to go for the coal, that's their plan," Mann says. "So the best we can do...the best they can do is find some way to clean up the pollution that coal will cause."
At this point, the best way to "clean up" coal is a process known as CCS -- carbon capture and storage.
In his piece, Mann examines the opportunity and challenges CCS presents, most notably the huge costs -- which the coal industry doesn't want to pay for -- and increased energy needed to capture and store deep underground what is essentially liquified carbon dioxide. "Deploying CCS means that power plants will consume 40 to 60 percent more of the black stuff," Mann writes. "Mitigating the environmental costs of digging up and burning coal thus means digging up and burning even more coal."
Still, Mann believes CCS is the only way -- "expensive but doable" -- to avoid what a joint statement of climate scientists last year called “an outcome that can only be described as catastrophic."
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And while much of this discussion is about climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, there is also a (very) big business opportunity which right now is being pursued most aggressively in China.
"China has the world's worst coal problem -- it makes sense they're in the lead in CCS," Mann says. But "it's a big mistake" for America's coal industry to focus on exports (a new growth area) vs. embracing CCS which he describes as: "A terrible idea whose time has come."