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Why the world still warms to coal

The dirtiest fossil fuel is powering growth in developing nations.

November 18, 2007|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the crack cocaine of the developing world.

It is the inexpensive and plentiful fuel powering the rising economies of Asia -- and because of that, it has become one of the most intractable problems in combating global warming.

Even as the political will and grass-roots support to rein in rising carbon dioxide levels is growing, a large segment of the world is using more coal than ever.

The addiction threatens to undercut the landmark work of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for work on global warming.

In a series of reports this year, the panel outlined the causes and consequences of global warming, along with solutions to avoid its most serious effects. The final installment of the panel's report -- a synthesis of its key findings approved by delegates from 140 countries -- was released Saturday.

The panel's road map for action hinges on all the world's biggest carbon polluters significantly reducing their emissions over the next 20 years.

But the reality is that for many countries, coal has been too good to give up.

"A gigaton of carbon here, a gigaton there -- we've got a disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality," said David Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research group in Washington that recently compiled a database of the world's 50,000 power plants.

Leading the coal spree is China, which has more than doubled its CO2 emissions from coal since 2000 to more than 2.7 billions tons a year, according to the database.

Over the last eight years, China has built 603 coal-fired generators -- 64% of the new generators installed worldwide. India has added 133 generators, according to the database.

They're not the only coal addicts.

In raw numbers, China has merely caught up to the United States, according to the database. In Europe, which has led the world in greenhouse gas reductions, coal use is expected to creep up in the next several years -- driven by rising oil and natural gas prices.

But a recent analysis by MIT climate experts found that even if the U.S. and Europe could somehow stop all their carbon emissions, the developing countries are on pace to create a climate crisis on their own.

Michael Wara, a Stanford University researcher who studies the emerging markets for greenhouse gases, said: "In 20 years, if India and China aren't on board, the game is lost."

Part of the problem with coal is its chemistry.

Because it contains more carbon atoms than other fossil fuels, burning it produces more carbon dioxide for each megawatt-hour of electricity -- roughly 25% more than oil and 66% more than natural gas.

It's cheap and abundant, and as Leon E. Clarke, an economist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, added: "Unlike conventional oil and gas, it can be treated as virtually inexhaustible over the coming century."

For many nations, the surplus of coal holds strategic allure as well because it allows them to reduce dependence on their other addiction: oil.

Coal, which now accounts for 39% of the carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels, will soon surpass oil as the top emissions source -- and keep expanding its lead over the next two decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

China and the U.S. each account for about a quarter of the world's carbon emissions. In the next decade, China is expected to move well ahead of the United States, and India will move past Russia into third place.

Since 1997, China has increased its coal-burning capacity from 145,000 megawatts to 370,000 megawatts, or about 28% of the global capacity, according to the power plant database.

Coal accounts for 77% of China's power capacity, compared with 42% worldwide and 48% in the United States.

Weaning countries with that level of coal dependence is not expected to be easy.

The U.N. panel has said that worldwide carbon emissions must peak in the next decade and fall by at least 50% by 2050 to limit temperature rise to about 3 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent serious drought, sea level rise and ecological chaos.

Its main solution is placing a cap on global emissions and charging polluters for every ton of carbon dioxide beyond that point. The carbon emissions would be bought and sold on a pollution market.

As the cap was lowered, the price of polluting would go up, eventually making it cheaper for polluters to shut down their old plants and build cleaner ones or add systems that would capture and store their pollution.

The panel estimated that reducing emissions to acceptable levels would cost about 3% of the world's gross domestic product over the next two decades.

Europe has already created such a market, but other countries, particularly China, India and the United States, have rejected calls to cap their emissions.

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