The Realities of Coal in the Second Industrial Revolution

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“Roughly speaking, we can think of the OECD as the oil users, and the Non-OECD as the coal users.”

This quote from energy investment analyst, Gregor MacDonald, should be deeply considered, particularly given the realities of world energy use and demographics. Simply put, the West is getting older and it’s growth has slowed considerably. Meanwhile, the developing world is seeing rapid population growth, now contributing almost 5 billion people to the global register. The ten largest cities in the world are mostly non-OECD* and as they further industrialize and pull more people out of the slums, they’ll need more power to drive their growth. With economic disparity choking access to petroleum, reinforced by much higher oil prices, the developing world is rising on coal-fired utilities and marching towards it’s own industrial revolution.


Source: Gregor MacDonald, 2010.

It’s my sense that these realities are not being deeply considered by many of the people involved in the debate about climate, energy, and sustainability who seem to be focusing primarily on China and the developed world. Yet population growth, industrial activity, and energy use has slowed to nearly flatline across Europe and the United States over the past 10 years, and their rate of population replacement is now negative. While coal use is a reality that may be declining in the West, it’s on the rise across the rest of the world. The other half of the planet is industrializing rapidly and it’s doing so by burning massive amounts of coal**. China, with a population of approx. 1.3 billion, gets a whopping 68% [adjusted to 2009] of it’s energy from coal. India, with aprrox. 1.1 billion people, derives about 60% of it’s energy from coal. While considerable efforts are being made to build out renewables the sheer size of these populations and the rate of their growth ensures many years of coal use before solar & wind will substantially offset their energy requirements. Likewise, countries heavily invested in coal exports, like Russia & Australia, are incentivised to promote it’s use for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the World Coal Institute would have us believe that there’s enough coal to last 130 years at current rates of production.

Given that coal use is so large and embedded as a global energy resource and financial commodity, it is imperative that the coal industry and it’s technologies are upgraded to reliable clean coal and carbon recapture solutions. These are, in my opinion, some of the most important developments that the climate discussion should be pressing for, amended as pre-requisites to World Bank and IMF funding. Western industrialism is cooling. Capitol is moving to the developing world and the second industrial revolution is beginning. We have the opportunity to try and intentionally design it to avoid the pitfalls of the western path. Whether or not we accept anthropogenic warming we know that burning coal is dirty and bad for living things.

Believe me, I don’t want to say this. And I know the proclivity of the coal industry to promote less-than-marginal solutions disguised as “clean coal”. But it’s critical that we accept the abundance of coal, it’s presently-irreplaceable energy intensity, and it’s ongoing use across the world so we can focus on real solutions to making it cleaner over the next 20 years while we build out the necessary renewable infrastructure.

* Tokyo – 35,676,000; New York-Newark – 19,040,000; Ciudad de Mexico – 19,028,000; Mumbai – 18,978,000; Sao Paulo – 18,845,000; Delhi – 15,926,000; Shanghai – 14,987,000; Kolkata – 14,787,000; Dhaka – 13,458,000; Buenos Aires – 12,795,000 (2007) [Note that non-OECD countries often have census numbers lower than actual population size, due to under-reporting across slums.]
** For more details & numbers on rising coal use in non-OECD, see: EIA International Energy Outlook 2009 for coal.

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