Union of Concerned Scientists


by Barbara Freese and Jeff Deyette


Coal power is America's biggest source of heat-trapping emissions, yet new investments in coal-fired power plants will keep us burning this fossil fuel for years to come. What can be done to prevent coal from sabotaging the fight against global warming?

Many people seem to think coal represents a bygone way of life and that America has moved on to safer and cleaner energy sources. On the contrary, coal provides more than half the nation's electricity—far more than any other source of power—and our coal use has nearly tripled since 1960. That trend will continue if the power industry succeeds in building even a portion of the 100-plus power plants it has proposed for construction.

Coal's proponents want you to believe that coal power is cheap. Electric rates, however, don't reflect the staggering and lasting costs of coal related air and water pollution, mining accidents, permanently altered landscapes, and, most importantly, climate change. Technology is evolving that has the potential to reduce coal's contribution to air pollution and global warming, but the power industry has yet to fully embrace it. In the meantime, today's skyrocketing gas prices have put coal back in the power industry's spotlight.

Coal and Climate Change

Of the many environmental and public health risks associated with coal, the most serious in terms of its universal and potentially irreversible consequences is global warming.

The scientific community has reached an overwhelming consensus that Earth's climate is warming, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its comprehensive 2001 assessment that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are largely to blame. The evidence continues to mount about the timing and severity of the potential consequences: in various locales around the world, we have already begun to see shifts in the habitation ranges of plants and animals, widespread dying (or "bleaching") of coral reefs, an earlier onset of spring, more intense storms and droughts, and rising sea levels due to melting glaciers.

With just five percent of the world's population, the United States generates about one-quarter of global heat-trapping emissions—more than any other country. While most people associate global warming primarily with vehicle exhaust, electricity generation is the leading source of U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—the most important heat-trapping gas. Our coal plants already emit more CO2 than all our cars, SUVs, trucks, buses, boats, trains, and airplanes combined, and the U.S. Department of Energy projects that CO2 emissions from coal, if left unchecked, will increase an additional 52 percent by 2030 (compared with 2003 levels).

The U.S. is not alone in this regard. Projections of skyrocketing coal use in China and India suggest the combined emissions from these two developing countries could surpass U.S. CO2 emissions by 2025.

These projections are especially sobering in light of comments made by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chairman, in early 2005. Dr. Pachauri argued that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have already reached dangerous levels, and that we have less than a decade to make deep cuts in emissions or risk reaching a "point of no return" for catastrophic climate change. Any realistic attempt to achieve such reductions would require moving away from the conventional coal technology in use today.

Climate-Friendly Coal?

Over the years, pollution laws have prompted the development of technologies that can reduce the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot emanating from coal-fired power plants by 80 to 99 percent. A promising new power generation technology, integrated gasification-combined cycle (IGCC), has the potential to take pollution control one step further, capturing CO2 before it escapes into the atmosphere.