Sunday, March 10th 2013, 11:44 AM EDT
Listening to the political debate in Canada over man-made climate change, you’d think the two greatest threats to humanity are the development of Alberta’s oil sands and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Wrong. While North American governments, environmentalists and media obsess about oil, the far bigger threat to the planet, if the theory of anthropogenic global warming is correct, is the use of coal to produce power by the U.S., China, India, Africa, Australia and parts of Europe.
By comparison, coal use in Canada, particularly to generate electricity, is limited and, in many cases, declining.
Ontario’s Liberal government, for example, which came to power in 2003, has largely replaced coal-fired electricity with natural gas, although it pretends, for political purposes, that it has accomplished this through the use of unreliable wind power.
A scientific paper published last year by Canadian climate scientists Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart concluded that when it comes to anthropogenic climate change, the global use of coal is a far greater threat than oil, including Canada’s oil sands.
Weaver and Swart didn’t give the oil sands a pass. To the contrary, they argued every country must do what it can to lower its greenhouse gas emissions.
But their findings reflect a growing body of evidence that coal, which pollutes more than oil which, in turn, pollutes more than natural gas, is the real culprit in global warming, because it is so cheap and abundant.
President Barack Obama, for example, has accurately described the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia of coal”, given its massive reserves.
While coal use in America has recently declined, primarily because of the increasing availability of cheap natural gas through fracking technology, coal usage in the developing world is increasingly exponentially.
So much so, that in December, 2012, the International Energy Agency reported that coal is rapidly closing in on oil as the world’s top energy source, and that if current consumption patterns hold, coal will surpass oil shortly after 2017.
The enormity of addressing this issue is underscored by the findings of a recent World Resources Institute study, reported in the Guardian newspaper.
The WRI identified 1,200 coal plants in the planning stages in 59 countries — three quarters of them in India (455 plants) and China (363 plants) alone. Since most of these countries are in the developing world, they’re exempt from having to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the United Nations’ Kyoto and post-Kyoto regulatory regimes.
The U.S. never ratified Kyoto and is also exempt from having to reduce its emissions.
In this context, the development of Alberta’s oil sands, while of concern in Canada, is insignificant in global terms, responsible for about one-tenth of 1% of global emissions.
Canada, which pulled out of the Kyoto protocol last year after failing to meet its emission targets, is responsible for 2% of emissions.
By comparison, China and the U.S., the world’s two top emitters, are responsible for about 40%.
But whether you believe Canada should be doing more to reduce its emissions, or that we would be patsies to agree to emission targets while the world’s largest polluters refuse, there is also a moral issue to consider in the the future use of coal to provide global energy.
India and China, for example, didn’t embark on their massive coal plant expansion programs to destroy the environment.
They did so because while coal is reviled by environmentalists in the First World, in the Third World it is the cheapest method of generating power, particularly electricity, which is key to improving living standards.
In the developing world —including Africa — coal-fired power plants replace more primitive and deadly forms of energy, such as burning wood to heat, light and cook in the home, which causes millions of people to die prematurely every year from indoor air pollution.
Indeed, without the reliable electricity coal can provide, people in developing countries cannot work after the Sun goes down, dramatically lowering productivity, nor can food or medicines be stored, nor sterile environments maintained in hospitals.
Indeed, for billions living in the developing world, the real choice isn’t between “dirty” coal plants and “clean” wind turbines or solar panels.
It’s between having sufficient energy to improve the quality of their lives, or to remain trapped in what those of us living in the First World would describe as the Dark Ages of humanity.