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Rethinking Fossil Fuels

James Hansen


Climate change and fossil fuel use are connected. It would serve the world well to:

  • Begin a moratorium on coal-fired power plants.
  • Explore and use renewable energy.
  • Insist on immediate action from world governments.
  • Penalize industries putting excess CO2 into the atmosphere.

September 2008

Why has climate change become a political issue?

Coal is to blame for 50% of excess CO2 in the air.

Hansen: It has become a political issue because it has huge implications for our energy systems, and specifically for fossil fuel use. That includes oil and coal since fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, formed long ago from the remains of dead plants and animals. Overall, fossil fuel use is the source of about 80% of excess CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere; the remainder comes from deforestation. The big issue in terms of climate change is coal, which accounts for 50% of excess CO2 today. Climate change has become a political issue because the fossil fuel industry and the other industries that are affected, like the automobile industry, have special interests. Their profits would be affected by the changes that need to be made to stabilize the climate.

A coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma that can process carbon dioxide.
Source: American Electric Power.

Since coal is such a huge factor in the problem, I propose that we need a moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and that we phase out existing coal-fired power plants except those plants that are capable of capturing and sequestering CO2. There are other industries, particularly renewable energy industries, which can generate in many cases new and better jobs than coal mining. Some people feel threatened by these necessary changes. However, unless we make these changes, we will leave a much more desolate planet for our children and grandchildren.

Is there is a difference in CO2 that comes from coal and the CO2 that comes from other fossil fuels?

CO2 from coal could stored underground.

Hansen: The molecules are the same but there is a practical difference. Unlike other fossil fuels, the CO2 from coal could be captured and sequestered underground instead of being released into the atmosphere. The other difference is that there is much more coal than there is oil. We have already used about half of the available oil. That’s what “peak oil” means. It’s the point in time when we reach the maximum rate for extraction of petroleum globally. We have entered the phase when the rate of production is on the decline. Oil is going to run out over the next several decades. Increasing oil exploration now won’t do much good in the long run.

There is a misconception about carbon dioxide and automobiles that needs to be corrected. The CO2 emitted by individual vehicles cannot be captured. You cannot capture it as it comes out of tailpipes. That is just not practical. But we can capture CO2 at major point sources, such as fossil fuel power plants.

Is the technology in place to sequester CO2 from coal?

Renewable energies offer a viable solution.

Hansen: The technology is already here. The U.S.A. could have had it by now but decision makers took the last seven years to arrive at a location for the first power plant to capture the CO2. They finally decided on Illinois and then they canceled the plans because the federal energy department decided it was too expensive. Neither coal manufacturers nor utilities pushed for the idea because it was going to increase the price of electricity by probably from 25% to 40%.

This added cost on coal production would probably give a big boost to renewable energies because they would become competitive in price. Frankly, I think that would be a great thing. We need to move in the direction of renewable energy.

Are alternatives to fossil fuels, such as wind energy, feasible?

Hansen: Wind energy is now competitively priced for generating electricity with fossil fuels. But wind is intermittent, so it cannot be the major source. However, it can contribute significantly. In addition, there is enough sunlight in the southwest U.S.A. to provide electricity for the entire country. To do this we would have to set up an electrical grid, a DC grid. The DC grid is one that is powered by direct current (DC), with electrons flowing in one direction around a circuit. Our current system is powered by alternating current (AC), in which electrons jump back and forth. The technology for a DC transmission system exists. As a matter of fact, that’s what Thomas Edison suggested back in the late 1800s. This is the kind of alternate energy we should get going. It takes decades to make changes in infrastructure for an energy system.

Solar thermal energy is promising and doable.

Solar thermal energy (STE) is another very promising source of renewable energy. STE energy can be low, medium, or high. Flat panels that heat your pool are low energy collectors. I’m referring to high energy collectors. That’s a system where mirrors or lenses are used to concentrate solar energy for electric power production. There is a fairly substantial solar thermal power plant being built now in Nevada. STE technology has the potential to provide much of the energy needs of America and reduce the environmental impacts of power plants.

There are other examples of alternative energies that would allow us to move beyond fossil fuels. We need to get much more serious about them because various fossil fuels are finite. The trick is we need to do it sooner rather than later. If we wait until we have burned up all the fossil fuels, then we will have guaranteed disastrous climate effects.

Is fossil fuel the most urgent issue to address today?

Hansen: You could categorize it that way. The single most important action we can take has to do with coal. As I have said, we must declare a moratorium on coal use and a phase out of new coal usage by power plants, except where we capture and sequester CO2.

Tar shales or tar sands are limited sources.

While we develop new renewable energies, we can take an interim step—to try and squeeze fossil fuels out of tar shales or tar sands. Canada has started to do this. But, the volume of fuel, so far, is small in comparison to oil and coal. That is why the emitters—the polluters—should have to pay a price for the pollution they put into the atmosphere. That is why I say we need a carbon price, in addition to a coal moratorium to discourage the use of polluting fossil fuels. It’s a straightforward and effective way to slow carbon emissions and discourage the exploitation of those regions that shouldn’t be exploited. This concept needs to be introduced over time, so that you give the public the chance to change their practices and switch to less carbon-dense energy sources.

Soils and trees can store CO2.

In all this talk of fossil fuels, we must not forget forests as an important factor in climate. As I mentioned in the beginning of the interview, about 20% of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to deforestation. The other issue that demands attention is forestry and agricultural practices. We can draw down the atmospheric CO2 by growing forests on degraded land, which will store carbon dioxide in the soil.

What can the public do to bring attention to the fossil fuels issue?

Hansen: The main thing that the public can do is influence the political process because at the moment the fossil fuel industry is calling the tune. This industry has a huge influence on politicians. Even in states where it makes absolutely no sense to build a nuclear-fired power plant, it is happening because of the political clout of the fossil fuel industry.

The public can influence politicians and utilities.

We can also push for energy efficiency. Did you know that you could have the same lifestyle using half as much energy? The business philosophy of our utilities today is to make more money by selling consumers more energy. We need to change this attitude. Two American states, one of them being California, have changed the rules, illustrating that utilities can make more money by helping customers use less energy. Compared to the average U.S. state, California uses only about half as much energy for a given unit (gross domestic product). If California can accomplish energy efficiency, so can other states.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

The public should encourage alternative energy development. Nevada, for example, has extensive potential in solar energy; it has strong wind potential; it has geothermal energy. The state can actually make money by selling/providing energy to other states. But, because of the power of the coal industry, they are planning to build three new coal-fired power plants, which will create local pollution. The mercury released into the atmosphere will wind up in our rivers and streams and oceans.

It makes no sense from the standpoint of public interest to build these polluting power plants. People have to be sufficiently concerned about such activity that they elect politicians that make choices that are good for the public. The supporters of the fossil fuel industry are working in the interest of the profits of the fossil fuel industry but NOT in the interest of the public or the planet.

James Hansen, Ph.D., is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Trained in physics and astronomy in Dr. James Van Allen’s space science program at the University of Iowa, Dr. Hansen is best known for his Congressional testimony on climate change in the 1980s that helped raise broad awareness of global warming. Elected to the US National Academy of Sciences I995, Dr. Hansen has received numerous awards, including the WWF Conservation from the Duke of Edinburgh and designation by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 1996. Hansen was interviewed at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

Rethinking Fossil Fuels

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