The no-coal goal

Hopefully a thing of the past

Hopefully a thing of the past

In some parts of the world, tradition has it that naughty children find only a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. They might not have presents to play with at Christmas, but at least the home fires will keep burning.

At Hogmanay, part of the Scottish tradition of first-footing (the first person to cross the threshold bringing luck, or ill-luck, to the household for the coming year) includes the presentation of a piece of coal to symbolize warmth.

And coal has hit the headlines this New Year. In an open letter to incoming US President Obama, Jim Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and wife Anniek stress both the urgency for action on climate change and the ineffectiveness of current policies.

As might be expected it’s uncomfortable reading, but offers pragmatic solutions nonetheless. The Hansens urge a three-pronged approach based on the complete phasing out of coal, replacement of existing carbon cap and trade systems with a more sophisticated “tax and dividend” mechanism, and the development of better nuclear power alternatives.

a black lie

Clean coal: a black lie

The letter draws a clear distinction between oil and gas, which are well on their way to being fully depleted, and coal, the abundance of which raises the spectre of a fossil fueled economy for decades to come. Forget about controlling emissions from oil and gas, but without effective carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology in place, we must stop using coal as a matter of extreme urgency.

[The environmental cost of coal is also brought into sharp focus. A single coal fired station burning 10000 tonnes of coal a day for fifty years (though that might be higher than typical figures) will doom 400 species to extinction. No wonder the Hansens refer to coal power stations as “factories of death”.]

With the current low oil prices, the time is right for installing a hefty carbon tax, the Hansens continue. Their proposed mechanism would operate at the well-head or port of entry, with the costs being passed on throughout the supply chain and ultimately borne by the end consumer. The clever part is the offer of a 100% dividend: revenues from the tax are distributed on a per capita basis, paid direct into individuals’ bank accounts. People choosing to reduce their carbon footprints more will be rewarded, whereas those who continue to pollute unnecessarily will have to pay for the privilege.

Such a system of taxation, Hansen claims, should be palatable to the public because the state would not take a cut. In theory, the additional financial burden would be fully compensated under a “business as usual” scenario (though a continuously rising carbon tax would make that increasingly untenable), but it would also provide the opportunity for increased wealth through changed patterns of consumption. It’s an intriguing proposal, and we will follow any economic analysis with interest.

Embracing fourth generation nuclear power is the third part of the Hansen’s vision. Rebutting the “it won’t be ready before 2030” claim, they argue that technological development progresses at a rate proportional to its funding. The new President could, if he wished, plough huge resources into both 4GNP and CCS research, which should bring them to widespread commercial use much more quickly. In any case, there’s always current (third) generation nuclear power to tide us over.

The letter has received massive media attention and it’s impossible to believe that Mr Obama isn’t aware of it. Let’s hope he seizes the opportunity his presidency brings to tackle the environmental crisis head on.

Happy New Year, Barack.

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