Of Clean Coal, Unicorns, Falsies, and 350 ppm

“We suggest an initial objective of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm…

“Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.

“The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”

That’s according to James Hansen et.al., in a 2008 paper published in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal. (The 350 ppm target has spawned a new advocacy group called 350, graphic shown above.) It’s hard not to retreat into denial when presented with brutal truth such as this.

Note that to be defensibly accurate, the authors were careful to qualify their denunciation of coal use with “does not capture CO2.” The coal industry has been wildly successful at popularizing a term for coal-fired power plants that capture CO2: Clean Coal. There’s only one pesky little problem with that, as Eric De Place at Sightline is fond of reminding us:

“Clean coal is like a Unicorn. It may be a groovy fantasy, but it just doesn’t exist.”

Or more succinctly, as the title of this informative summary puts it, “clean coal is a lie.” And it has been such an ingeniously propagated lie that the coal industry has been presented with a special award by the Center for Media and Democracy: a Bronze Falsie. The fact that politicians from Obama to Palin have given lip service to the lie is a stark indication of the tenacious grip still held by the status quo.

Meanwhile, Hansen speaks the truth about those who continue to use their substantial power and influence to promote coal:

“In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

15 Responses to “Of Clean Coal, Unicorns, Falsies, and 350 ppm”

  1. Spencer

    Help! What can we, on an individual level, do to reduce our contribution to this problem? (please no comments on moving into a densely populated area or building. That dead horse is…dead at this blog).

  2. wes

    stop driving…

  3. spencer

    thanks. I can stop eating coal every x-mas too.

  4. Matt the Engineer

    Other than cars, Washington has a fairly light carbon footprint thanks to our hydroelectric power. I suppose what you can do is use less concrete (we use coal to make our concrete), and to find balanced salmon saving solutions that don’t remove hydroelectric (not that we’re doing that here, but that’s the main problem with dams). Plus all of the typical reduced transportation actions – eat local food, drive less, etc.

  5. Dan Staley

    At the individual level, we can change behaviors to use less, use CFLs, etc.

    But this is a drop in the bucket. Also, rule of thirds applies and only ~1/3 of folks make deep reductions or changes to make a difference. The rest don’t care or won’t change or whatever. So,

    We need as a society to close production loops, double CAFE standards, move to renewables, eliminate waste, reduce our overall consumption by about 350-450%. But, shucky darns, our economy is based on people buying trinkets and having a short life-cycle to buy new cr*p.

    That is: unless society radically changes, individual action won’t do much. YMMV.

  6. drewvsea


    I was just catching up on my blog reading for the week, and, my, were you ever prescient with this post. As you’re probably aware by now, there was a nasty coal ash spill in TN just the day after you wrote the above text.


    This coal ash spill is said to be “the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States” and yet it’s curiously absent from the top headlines on major news sites. Nor are we ever shown the day-to-day environmental carnage that results from coal mining (entire mountaintops razed; streams polluted with arsenic and other toxic runoff, etc., etc…) when discussing the viability of “clean coal.”

  7. dan bertolet

    MTE, electricity from Seattle City Light may be near carbon neutral because of the hydro source, but that does not mean it’s a free lunch. Hydro is tapped and demand is rising, so every kWh hour not used essentially saves a “dirty” kWh that would most likely be generated by fossil fuels. Honest CO2 accounting means you assume an emissions factor that’s more representative of the typical energy mix. SCL uses 0.6 kgCO2/kWh.

    Spencer, if you (like me) are an evil single-family home owner and don’t drive much, the biggest impact you can likely have is in your home. Insulation, windows, appliances, etc, you know the drill. For me, the biggest roadblock is the high cost of replacement windows, probably $30k or more to do my whole house.

    And don’t forget that as the smarty pantses at Sightline have noted, it may be that energy efficiency is a better investment than the stock market.


  8. Spencer

    Thanks guys.

    I just did my carbon footprint a short while ago and discovered that I’m doing pretty well compared to the rest of the nation. But, if I become a vegetarian my carbon foot print reduces by nearly a third. If I become a vegan it has the single largest reduction of carbon use. I find that amazing and understandable.

    Dan, is CFL=Canadian Football League? What is CAFE and YMMV?

    I also agree that hydro is not the answer. If we need the rivers for energy we need to find another way to tap them without changing the landscape.

  9. Matt the Engineer

    Compact fluorescent lighting, corporate average fuel economy (US efficiency requirements), your mileage may vary.

    Gah! How can I forget about vegetarianism/veganism!!? I’ve been veggie for about 15 years, and one of my prime reasons is efficiency. We don’t have a food shortage problem on our planet, we have a food efficiency problem – we feed much of our food to animals, which provide us with only 10% of the food value in return. Not to mention the energy/effort/pollution required to raise animals.

  10. Dan Staley

    CFL compact fluorescent light
    CAFE corporate avg fuel economy
    YMMV your mileage may vary.

    Acronym dictionary.



    Back when I lived in Sacto, SMUD was opposing dam removal on the Trinity, because that’s where they got a bunch of their “green” power from.

  11. joshuadf

    There’s also the things that won’t show up on any carbon calculator: live simply. Enjoy the walks so you don’t “need” to drive places. And the biggie: work for structural change.

    Also, I love my greens and went veggie for a while, but I’ve learned that most of the waste in animal raising is due to the horrific conventional agriculture: fossil fuel fertilizers, CAFOs, food distribution, etc. There is nothing wrong with being vegan, but I don’t feel bad about buying some Sea Breeze cheese (raised on Vashon) either. The ruminant digestive system evolved to metabolize many things that humans cannot.

  12. What It’s Going To Take | hugeasscity

    […] arrested today for protesting mountaintop removal coal mining.  I’ve blogged about Hansen here and here, and was so moved by today’s news (via Alan Durning’s fb update) that I […]

  13. Jesus Peyton

    That is a wonderful post. With thanks Research Produced Simple

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    Of Clean Coal, Unicorns, Falsies, and 350 ppm | hugeasscity…

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