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James Fallows Gets Behind Clean Coal

The Atlantic's James Fallows argues that "clean coal," something most environmentalists regard as a joke, is actually our only hope.

But only because he has to.

In a new feature in The Atlantic, James Fallows argues that "clean coal," something most environmentalists regard as an industry chimera, is actually the only way to save the planet from baking under a canopy of carbon. He reasons that a growing reliance on coal is inevitable—especially with China's economic explosion—so developing carbon-free coal is our only option.

Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. [...]

Similar patterns apply even more starkly in China. Other sources of power are growing faster in relative terms, but year by year the most dramatic increase is in China’s use of coal.


Fallows makes a compelling case that it's unrealistic to think the global use of coal will decrease at all. This chart, from the latest International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook report, provides a nice (er, scary) illustration of the point. To hear the IEA tell it, so far China has just barely whet its appetite for coal.

The problem with Fallows' piece, however, is that while he does make a compelling case that we can't reduce carbon without clean coal, he doesn't do much to convince a reader that we'll actually develop workable clean coal technology (it doesn't exist right now in a scalable form). His argument that we will—which rests on a lot of handwaving about "innovation" and "experimentation"—is pretty thin. One might as well hope for some unforeseen, transformative breakthrough in solar energy.

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