Next President: Cut Coal Fast, Experts Warn

05/25/2011 12:50 pm ET

A top U.S. government climatologist, Jim Hansen, recently argued in a special edition of Scientific American that there was no knowing whether humanity had already passed a tipping point, pushing the planet towards greatly accelerating global warming. Because our planet represents a complex interconnected system of physical, ecological, and human factors, predicting the development of global warming is difficult. Predicting all the feedbacks that reinforce the process is daunting. Nonetheless, Hansen notes that such reinforcing feedbacks exist and are accelerating global warming faster than the IPCC climate models show, as in the unpredicted acceleration of polar and glacial ice melt. It's time for the planet to quit smoking, quite literally.

Given our current state of knowledge, Hansen argues that humanity must dramatically and rapidly decrease the combustion of one of the primary anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases, coal. To forestall climatic catastrophes, he thinks we must cut all burning of coal by 2030. He is not alone. Al Gore has called for a moratorium of all coal burning plants by 2020. US utilities are starting to replace coal generated electricity with that generated from clean renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. Plans for nearly half of 150 new US coal plants have been stopped over the past four years as people recognize their effect on global warming, and many of the rest are still being opposed. Only 14 of the original 150 proposed plants are going forward. This is encouraging, but clearly too little and too slow.

Some contemplate clean coal. The British government's Environment Agency recently urged a halt to the construction of any new coal plants until they could be made with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology - that is, the capability of capturing the greenhouse gases emitted from the combustion of coal, and permanently storing it underground. Simultaneously, the agency urged faster progress in proving that such technology is commercially viable.

Clean coal has problems. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development concluded that CCS will not become feasible before 2030 - but climatologists say we have to cut our emissions starting now. Many question whether the captured gases can be pumped in vast pressurized amounts underground and stored there safely. Only some areas have the type of underground rock suitable for such pumping and storage. No one knows if we have enough suitable subterranean areas for all the gas we would have to store. A Swedish company claims to have demonstrated the ability to pump and store carbon dioxide underground on a small scale. The longterm safety of such sequestration remains untested, however. Furthermore, the technology will be expensive, and add to the costs already incurred from extraction and the often unaccounted effects of environmental pollution.

What we need is cheap clean energy fast, and this is what solar and wind energy development is already delivering in some parts of the U.S. Solar and wind technology is constantly evolving to be cheaper and more efficient. Some contend that these sources are discontinuous, but we already have the basic technology needed to store this energy: underground flywheels, megabatteries, and storage in electric cars are the most promising avenues. Flywheels and megabatteries are already deployed on a small scale. These technologies can be deployed commercially with the help of an upgraded and expanded smart national electric grid, a necessary change that is already being planned.

We argue in our recent book "Cool the Earth, Save the Economy" (free download at www.CoolTheEarth.US ) that reducing coal use to zero by 2030 is a viable plan, by increasing energy efficiency and conservation practices, as well as developing solar and wind power technology and the accessory technologies mentioned above, very rapidly. Retraining coal workers for some of the new jobs created by a burgeoning clean energy industry can be a part of this investment.

So let's hope the message is clear to the next president: stop wasting precious time and money on an energy source that is quickly becoming obsolete to our needs. Cut the coal, and fast.