The Cost of Coal

A recent tweet trumpeted a report that 250,000 Chinese died in 2013 due to smog from coal ( The report on the deaths came partly from Greenpeace, of course.

The 5,354 MW Belchatów Power Station in Poland – one of the world’s largest coal fired power stations. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There is little question that coal is dangerous. It is dangerous to mine. Its emissions are a problem; coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Yet coal is cheap, abundant, and the demand for it is vast. As Justin Lin wrote in 2009 on the World Bank’s blog:

There are roughly 1.6 billion people in developing countries–700 million of whom are in Africa and 550 million in South Asia–who lack access to electricity. Because coal is often cheap and abundant, and the need for electricity is so great, coal plants are going to be built with or without our [World Bank] support.

The question that should spring  to everyone’s mind is “how many died in China from cold or indoor pollution before the electrification that the coal plant brought with it?” The Manichaeistic, black/white premise of something being all good (e.g., Renewable Energy) or all bad (e.g., Fossil Fuel) is at best, uncritical thinking, and at worst, lying.

Greenpeace, the report’s author, is of course fretting about climate change, and its answer is to turn back the clock. I am a luke-warmer in regards to climate change; I think the climate is much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than the Global Climate Models (GCM) that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest. But even a full-throated supporter of climate change, such as Mark Lynas, sees the need for coal in places such as China and India:

The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in. – Mark Lynas, 2014, India’s coal conundrum

To be clear, the possible deaths of people due to the burning of coal are regrettable. Scrubbers would ameliorate the particulates that cause the health problems; as China and India get richer their people will become more vocal in their calls for cleaner air. At the moment, jobs, cleaner drinking water, sanitation, and food on the table appear to be of greater importance.

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