Tag Archives: coal

The Financial Folly of Fossil Fuels

At the Front Door  –  a column on climate change in our lives

Natural disasters are as old as our planet.  From asteroid impacts that caused major species loss, to floods and plagues of biblical proportions, to modern day hurricanes and wildfires, they have affected both plant and animal life.  Past events were viewed as “acts of God” – random occurrences, with no known cause.

Today we know better.  Astronomers with increasingly accurate telescopes can track and predict the paths of asteroids.  Plate tectonics tells us where and approximately how frequently, but not when earthquakes will occur.  Weather forecasting is increasingly precise, allowing accurate estimates of storm tracks and precipitation amounts.  Major storms and seasonal droughts are no longer totally random events; they can be predicted weeks and even months ahead.

There is one important prediction that was made over 100 years ago, based on the observation that carbon-dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas:  the earth will get warmer if we continue to burn coal.  It was not taken very seriously at the time, the amount of warming, due to 19th century coal production, seemed insignificant and far into the future.  But coal consumption increased, automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages adding oil as a generator of CO2.  Coal was also used to generate gas for heating and cooking, but as coal reserves became depleted, natural gas took its place and CO° emissions grew even more.

The world is now paying the price for the emission of all that CO2 – literally thousands of millions of tons (gigatons) per year.  This has raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by over 60% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As predicted, the earth has warmed; currently the global average temperature is 1.2 °C more than it was 150 years ago and is rising at a rate of 0.18 °C per decade.  This may not seem much, but it has huge consequences.  Glaciers all over the world are melting, as are the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.  The Arctic Ocean is now virtually free of ice every summer.  Thermal expansion as the oceans warm, combined with the added volume of melted ice is raising sea levels.  Warmer oceans also result in more frequent and more severe tropical storms.  Higher evaporation rates and warmer air carry more moisture inland where temperate zones suffer also from abnormally severe floods.  Conversely, away from the normal storm tracks, warmer, drier air is causing longer and more severe droughts, deserts are expanding towards the poles, plants are stressed and dying.  As a result, wildfires, too, are more frequent and severe.

These changes in climate directly affect our food and water supplies.  Crops failures due to both floods and droughts are increasing.  Farmland is being lost to rising oceans and saltwater encroachment.  Coral reefs are dying because of warmer water, as well as acidification caused by dissolved CO2.  This in turn causes collapse of fisheries.  Himalayan glaciers that once were reservoirs, replenished by winter snows, of fresh water for much of South East Asia are no longer reliable; likewise, the snow-packs feeding the watersheds of the Caucasus, Alps, Atlas, Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Andes mountain ranges.

All this damage costs money to combat, repair and ameliorate.  In the US alone, billions of dollars are spent building seawalls, creating more reservoirs, preparing for and fighting wildfires, building levees and other infrastructure strengthening.  Adapting to the loss of crop yield, for example by planting more acreage, costs a similar amount.  The price tag for hurricane and wildfire damage, in excess of natural historical averages, is many tens of billions of dollars annually.  Overall, the cost of extracting, refining, transporting and burning fossil fuels in business-as-usual is projected to be tens of trillion dollars by mid-century.

We can continue to pay more and more every year, or we can invest now and reap the future rewards.  There are readily available solutions at hand.  Electric power generated by solar cells and wind turbines do not emit CO2, and the “fuel” is free.  Power can be distributed largely over the existing grids.  The cost is solely in installation and maintenance.  Overall, the cost of clean energy is already less than that generated from fossil fuels.  It makes no economic sense to invest further in, and even subsidize, coal, oil and gas.  There will, of course, be job losses in these legacy industries with potential disruption of workers lives, but there will be ample new opportunities for safer, healthier jobs in clean energy, retrofitting buildings for its efficient use, electric vehicle manufacture and many other areas.  The funds for retraining and relocation, if necessary, can be supplied from redirected subsidies, the enormous savings in the cost of energy and reduction of damages.

So, pay now, or pay much more later.  The choice is clear.


J. Campbell Scott, PhD. recently retired after a 45-year career as an educator and research scientist. He is currently a volunteer with The Climate Reality Project and a member of the speakers’ bureau in its Santa Clara County chapter.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Fatal Fallout of Fossil Fuels

At the Front Door: Renewable and Carbon-Free Energy –  a column on climate change in our lives

Renewable and carbon-free energy is cheaper than fossil fuels!

Don’t believe me? Look at your energy bill.

San Jose has a program called San Jose Clean Energy, which is one of 23 Community Choice Energy (CCE) programs in California. In fact, the vast majority Bay Area communities are part of CCE programs. These programs provide “competitively priced clean energy options to customers” and reinvests any revenues into local communities. The majority of San Jose residents were automatically enrolled in this program in 2019, and once enrolled your power bill would have gone down. That’s right, the default option from San Jose Clean Energy provides consumers with 45% renewable energy at a cost that is approximately 1% less than what you would pay for traditional energy generation (which is currently about 29% renewable). For $5 more a month you can opt for a plan with 100% renewable sources. All it takes is the click of a button on your PG&E account.

But money isn’t the only way we pay for our fixation with fossil fuels. An article published in Nature in 2017 stated that “all energy production has environmental and societal effects.” Another way to term ‘effects’ is to say ‘costs’. But what, exactly, does that mean? 

To calculate the true cost of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, we must factor in the social and environmental cost of their carbon emissions. Let’s take coal as an example. In 2011 the perceived cost of coal was 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, a report by the National Academies of Science noted that each kilowatt-hour also cost 5.6 cents in adverse health impacts.

Another study put the cost of coal’s ‘externalities’- meaning releasing carbon dioxide – at between 9.4 to 26.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. They averaged their guess to about 17.8 cents, this may not seem like a lot but that puts the cost of the United States coal addiction at “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually” in unaccounted for costs. And it turns out that these numbers are likely too low. Recent research has indicated that the costs of carbon are more severe and one of the study’s authors noted that a higher number is more realistic. 

And some countries will pay much, much, more than others. A paper recently released in Nature Climate Change used recent climate model projections and economic and social damage estimates to devise a country-specific social cost of carbon (CSCC). The CSCC is, in short, the projected “economic damages from carbon dioxide emissions” by country – and it highlights that the consequences of carbon emissions will fall unevenly across the globe. And it turns out that India, struggling under a cost of $86 per ton of carbon, will pay the most. In fact, the next closest country is the United States, which will end up paying just over half of what India will pay at $48 per ton of carbon. 

The non-monetary costs of fossil fuels have already become apparent in industrializing countries like India. A study published by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust found that “[a]s many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion.” The number of fatalities includes 10,000 children under the age of five.

India’s demand for energy, and thus its coal use and subsequent negative health impacts, will likely continue to rise. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the Indian government has placed a tax on coal with the aim of spurring developments in renewables. If India is able to take this initiative, why can’t we?

The money that comes out of our monthly budget isn’t actually what we pay for energy. We pay with our health in the form of lower air quality, higher asthma rates, and higher COVID-19 mortality. We pay social costs with environmental degradation, increased social inequality, and a reduced quality of life. In short, we pay with shorter, sicker, less-equitable, and less-enjoyable lives. And worst of all, we pay with the lives and the future of our children. 


Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Image credit: Hermina Oláh Vass

Bibliography

Friedman, Lisa. (2013). “Coal-Fired Power in India May Cause More Than 100,000 Premature Deaths Annually.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-fired-power-in-india-may-cause-more-than-100000-premature-deaths-annually/

Greenstone, M and Looney, A. (2011), “The Real Costs of U.S. Energy.” Brookings Institute. URL: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-real-costs-of-u-s-energy/

Gres, E. (2017). “The Real Cost of Energy.” Nature, URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07510-3 

Harvey, C. and Gronewold, N. (2019). “CO2 Emissions Will Break Another Record in 2019.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-emissions-will-break-another-record-in-2019/

Meyer, R. (2015), “This Is the Real Cost of Coal.” Mother Jones, URL: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/08/coals-cost-climate-change/

Ricke, K., Drouet, L., Caldeira, K., Tavoni, M. (2018). “Country-Level Social Cost of Carbon.” Nature Climate Change, Vol.8: 895-900.

San Jose Clean Energy. (2020). URL: https://sanjosecleanenergy.org/totalgreen/