MAR 27, 2020 7:17 AM PDT

Why haven't we stopped burning coal yet?

We all know how bad it is for the planet and for our own public health, so why can’t we just say no, once and for all!? We’re talking about coal, the single most pertinent source of carbon dioxide that makes up over a third of global emissions. Getting rid of coal combustion really seems like a no-brainer, but somehow we still haven’t done it. Part of the why behind that explanation is complex and a little too political for a science magazine, so let’s take a look at it from an economic perspective, as has new research published recently in Nature Climate Change.

The study comes from an international team that developed computer simulations to analyze the economic arguments for why it makes sense to get rid of coal combustion, economically-speaking. Their simulations concluded three main findings: 1) the world will not remain below the 2 degrees limit if we continue to burn coal, 2) the economic benefits of eliminating coal by far outweigh the costs, and 3) such benefits are primarily locally and short-term (a turn-on for policymakers).

Photo: Pixabay

"We're well into the 21st century now and still heavily rely on burning coal, making it one of the biggest threats to our climate, our health, and the environment. That's why we decided to comprehensively test the case for a global coal exit: Does it add up, economically speaking? The short answer is: Yes, by far," says lead author Sebastian Rauner, who is a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

In their simulations, the researchers considered the entire life cycle effects of phasing out coal, looking at all energy sectors from electricity generation to transport, buildings, industry, and agriculture.  They also considered the impacts of a coal phase-out on the remaining energy sources, in addition to the environmental and human health costs.

"In particular, we looked at two externalities: Human health costs, especially caused by respiratory diseases, and biodiversity loss, as measured on the basis of how much it would cost to rewild areas currently cultivated. The mitigation costs, in turn, are mostly economic growth reductions and costs for investments in the energy system," said Rauner.

"Benefits from reduced health and ecosystem impacts clearly overcompensate the direct economic costs of a coal exit -- they amount to a net saving effect of about 1.5 percent of global economic output in 2050 -- that is, 370$ for every human on Earth in 2050.," comments Gunnar Luderer, the leader of the energy research group at PIK. "We see this effect already in the medium term. In particular, India and China could reap most of those benefits already by 2030."

The researchers mention China and India because of their current reliance on coal and related infamous air pollution crises. These two countries, say the researchers, could have a significant impact globally were they to phase out coal and their own citizens would feel the positive effects.

"This has very significant policy implications: It makes a huge difference for the citizens of an Indian or Chinese megacity what air they breeze, and for farmers how intact ecosystems are. These benefits are immediate and local," says Rauner. "So, the incentives towards policymakers are twofold: One, it is not unlikely that phasing out coal can win popular support, and eventually elections. Two, it is worthwhile phasing out coal even if your neighbors do not."

The researchers hope their findings give a push to countries and governments toward coal combustion elimination, given the clear economic, public health, and biodiversity benefits.

Sources: Nature Climate Change, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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