Saturday, July 15, 2017

What if Coal Were All We Had?

What if there was no renewable energy, or sustainable options to keep advanced civilization afloat?

I was reading an article about coal country, and the tradeoffs, dreams and delusions surrounding it, when it struck me what a different position we would be in if coal was all we had. Our civilization floats on a miasma of oil, gas, and coal, with some nuclear and hydropower thrown in. Wind and solar are growing, but fossil fuels make up 80% of energy resources, and will for years to come, especially as India and China continue to commit to more coal-based power. For all the oil we guzzle in transportation, heating, chemicals, and other uses, we use more than twice as much coal, to the tune of roughly ten billion tons per year.

But what if we lived in an alternate world where we did not have fracked natural gas, or renewables, or even oil? What if coal were all we had? Our industrial development would be a different place, clearly. Though World War 2 demonstrated that one can make practically anything from coal that can be made from oil, the processes are quite a bit more difficult. We would have more trains and streetcars, and fewer automobiles. More importantly, though, we would be facing much different choices in global warming, and pollution generally.

We would be in a world more like Victorian England, and contemporary China, where coal pollution is choking. The irony is that installing scrubbers to take out the most noxious pollutants, not to mention sequestering the CO2, is very expensive, not only in financial terms, but in energy terms, wasting even more of the fuel that in this world would be so precious. Coal would still be a limited resource, with a time horizon of maybe 200 to 300 years in all. Foresightful planning would regard this as an extremely precious resource, if not substitute were available, ever.

So from both the foresight and the pollution standpoints, we would be forced to conserve energy- that would be the solution to such a noxious resource. We would be much farther along in taxing carbon/coal to reduce usage to amounts consistent with local human health and future global health, even if strip-mining it were cheap and its many local costs acceptable. Hopefully, natural beauty would not be a distant memory in such a world, if we made these decisions in time- a time much earlier than we have the luxury of doing today. Would the human population be as high as currently? Given that the poorest areas of the world typically have the highest population and population density, that is quite likely. We would just all be poorer, crimped by a resource base that would be dirtier and scarcer than the one we have today.

Thankfully, we have a much brighter future in reality. In the developed world, pollution is not an in-your-face threat to human existence, but rather an invisible, subtle menace that needs to be met with responsibility and foresight if we wish to preserve much of the natural world that we evolved in, and have known in our own lifetimes, intact.