Coal: thank you and good night

The numbers are in.

Last year 2017 was one of the worst on record.

Not particularly for one thing or the other.  Just in the overall aggregate effect of so much misery and destruction.  There were widespread wildfires up and down the west coast of north America. Unprecedented in California—the Thomas fire burned for three months and destroyed countless homes.  It was still burning in early January this year.  All the way north to western Canada the fires burned . Then the astonishing event of three huge hurricanes smashing into the US in a single season. Harvey, the wettest tropical cyclone on record, drenched and flooded Houston; Irma devastated Barbuda; Maria destroyed Dominica, and damaged Puerto Rico so severely that it will takes months before the island recovers.

That’s just in our neck of the woods.  In east Africa, prolonged drought.  Ethiopia–millions displaced. In Bangladesh, floods drove millions from their homes.

These are not record-breaking events.  There have been massively destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean in the past.  But what once a 100-year event is now once every 20 years.  Soon these disasters will be every 5 years, and then every year.  Eventually no-one will live on these islands.  No-one will stay be behind to look after the house, because without electricity and  water, the house is no longer a place to live. The roof is gone, the fence is broken down and the garden is overrun. The house is simply a monument to what once was.

Will the New Year bring better tidings?  Ironic, this expression that comes from the idea that good fortune ebbs and flows.

No, the tidings are not good.  When last did good fortune flow?

‘Cryosphere’ was not a word I was familiar with before last year. But it has increasingly come into focus as we have learned more about the massive Greenland ice sheet and the shrinking extent of sea ice surrounding the north pole.  The Greenland ice sheet is astonishing–simply for its massive size; but this  slowly melting wasteland is far from the consciousness of ordinary folk. It drips silently, slowly, into the north Atlantic like some kind of medieval torture.  But sea level rise is only the stage on which ferocious hurricanes and cyclones ply their trade.

In November an image appeared in the media.  A polar bear was starving to death and filmed by the crew that happened to be on Baffin Island at the time.  Moved to tears, they could do nothing.  Which is why the image was so disturbing.  This was just one polar bear. Skin and bones. But as you watched him falter, roll his head to one side, open his eyes one last time, he became a metaphor. He has no name this bear. This is what is happening at the ends of the Earth. Out of sight, out of mind.

So back in the real world.  The world where politicians judge that climate change is irrelevant because their constituencies are not concerned.  How to change this dynamic?

In fact, it is almost impossible to discern what is true and what is marketing.  On the web, images about global warming are interspersed with articles about erectile disfunction. TV channels that talk about climate issues are politicized, dismissed as partisan, and boxed as fake news.

But maybe there is one thing we can get done.  Here’s my principal recommendation for the planet in 2018.

Number 1.  Say goodbye once and for all to coal.

Coal is the filthiest fuel on Earth.  The mines have killed thousands—from methane and coal dust explosions to miners dying of pneumoconiosis.  The tailings ponds, slag heaps, and impoundments that have failed over the years have killed hundreds and devastated landscapes, fouled rivers and streams, and polluted groundwater with acid mine drainage and the toxic slurries from the tailing ponds. Worse, coal-fired power plants have pumped billions of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter into the atmosphere. The impacts on public health of this pollution of the atmosphere has been catastrophic. We now know that several million people die prematurely each year from the health effects of these pollutants. Including hundreds of thousands of young children.

The most pernicious and toxic pollutant is mercury. There is always mercury in coal. In the US, coal power plants emit approximately 87% of all utility-related mercury pollution. Vaporized by the heat of combustion, mercury moves through the atmosphere until deposited by precipitation in lakes and seas. It is converted to methylmercury by bacteria and finishes up in the aquatic food chain.

You like fish and seafood?  They say it’s good for you. Welcome to mercury.

Its effects on the human nervous system are noxious, insidious and permanent. A US study a few years back showed almost 16% of women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels that would cause them to give birth to children with mercury levels exceeding the EPA’s maximum acceptable dose for mercury.  Researchers at that time estimated that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the US each year with blood mercury levels high enough to impair neurological performance. Global  emissions of mercury are on the rise mainly due to emissions from Asia. Globally, over 2000 tonnes of mercury is discharged into the air from anthropogenic sources each year—predominantly from coal-fired power plants.

In the majority of countries in the US, Canada, and Europe, the use of coal in power plants is declining—due to economic factors such as cheaper natural gas; and in China because of policies aimed at reducing the horrendous air pollution that is choking many large cities. But at least 12 countries worldwide are still ramping up consumption: led by India that burned almost 590 million tons of coal in 2016—more than the US and Canada combined.

But strangely, in the US and Canada, the production of coal is significantly greater than the consumption of coal.

Where are the several million tons that’s missing?  They’re being exported.

In 2011, Canada was the world’s seventh biggest coal exporter, and the province of British Colombia was the single largest exporter of coal in North America.

So this is how you mine coal with a clear conscience.  No global-warming carbon dioxide emissions; no  mercury. At least not in my back yard. This is all now someone else’s problem.  Of course, the mines and their tailing ponds will still foul the environment.  There will still be accidents and people will die.

So try not to laugh when people talk about clean coal.  They often mean coal-fired power plants that capture the carbon dioxide and store it someplace underground.  Carbon capture and storage–CCS. Even if CCS is possible—and we don’t know if it is, because it’s never been tried successfully at any useful scale, it ignores all the other colossal damage that coal mining does to the environment.

It’s not enough to close the coal-fired power plants.

We need to close the mines.

Links: Canadian mercury; health impacts; US power plants; Canada and coalstarving bear




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