What’s wrong with dirty Coal?

If we cannot persuade oil- and gas-rich nations to leave their resources in the ground (if it is their main source of income), then we must do the responsible thing – leave our coal in the ground – because it is the most-heavily polluting and because we have alternative sources of income and/or energy.

Greg Craven's decision matrix

Greg Craven's decision matrix

As Greg Craven has famously suggested, if there were even a significant possibility that we are approaching a tipping point (where amplifying feedbacks make reversal of changes impossible or, at very least, make mitigation/adaptation several orders of magnitude more expensive), it is insane not to invoke the precautionary principle and do something… Now is no time to be waiting for someone else to take the first move. Unfortunately, in the main, this is exactly what everyone involved in the UNFCCC negotiations has been doing for the last 19 years. It is therefore not surprising that absolutely no-one has met any emissions reductions targets set. That would require someone to have unilaterally decided to stop burning fossil fuels and make significant investment in alternatives. Once again, humanity is resolutely encamped upon The Tragedy of the Commons. In the UK, most of our remaining coal can be extracted from the ground with very limited permanent damage being done to the immediate environment. Opencast coal mining is messy but any blight, noise, dust, etc is temporary. However, to complain about it on such grounds (as many affected locals tend to), is to completely fail to see the big picture: Coal should be left in the ground because burning it increases the likelihood that our grandchildren will grow up on a significantly different planet. That being the case, mining coal is unsustainable development. End of story. In addition to this, in many other parts of the world – perhaps most notably the East Coast of the USA – coal mining is advancing at great permanent cost the the environment. As James Hansen points out, not only does mountain top removal permanently disfigure the landscape and remove potential sites for wind turbines (if you insist), it often alters surface water catchments and increases risks of polluting surface water and/or groundwater. Not to mention all the health risks for employees and local citizens arising from an increased risk of inhaling silica and/or coal dust. Therefore, in addition to being a form of unsustainable development, coal mining is incompatible with any attempt at ecological modernisation (EM). I have previously written at length about EM so will not now do so again but, in essence, EM is a school of environmental thought that says it is possible to decouple environmnetal degradation from economic development. At the risk of opening up another “can of worms“, we must hope that this is possible because, eventually (presumably?), this global financial crisis will pass – and economic development will resume. Then, apart from tackling climate change, all we will have to do is decouple qualitative growth (resource depletion or inter-generational injustice) from qualitative development (inequality reduction or intra-generational injustice)…!


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Energy Crisis, Environment, Ethics, Fossil Fuels, Growthmania, Limits to Growth, Politics, Sustainable development. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What’s wrong with dirty Coal?

  1. Donald says:

    And then we have morons like the ones in this link http://www.windsorstar.com/technology/Global+warming/5747606/story.html If ever a newspaper deserved a good, solid kick to its testicular region for reporting without first referencing proper facts it is the one in the link. Now …. how can we teach them that they are wrong? … it needs to be done 😦


    • Rick_Altman says:

      Thanks for that Donald. This must be the paper published in the Windsor (Ontario) that is in a parallel Universe as it cannot possibly relate to this planet… Just about every conspiracy theory there is gets a mention; including the one that says the UN is attempting to install worldwide socialist government by stealth. However, I do agree with one statement right at the end, to the effect that the UNFCCC has achieved nothing…


    • pendantry says:

      The word for those people is ‘moran’, Donald 😉


  2. Pingback: Perception is everything | Wibble

  3. pendantry says:

    PS s/decouple environmnetal degradation from economic development/decouple environmental degradation from economic development/ — and yes, this is something that we clearly must do… but equally cleary won’t.


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