The climate game is asymmetrical. Winning it is a long haul; it’ll take 50 years or more of patient investment to unwind ourselves from our fossil fuel infrastructure and build a sustainable energy economy. It’s great work, but quick it is not. Losing the game, however, is easy. We could do it in a heartbeat. That’s what Jim Hansen’s talking about when he calls tar sands development “game over” for the climate.
And tar sands aren’t the only way to lose. The single variable that will probably have the biggest impact on the world’s carbon emission trajectory and the fate of the climate is the number of coal-fired power plants that China and India build in the next decade or so. This factor looms so large because coal plants are so big, so long-lived, and so capital-intensive. And China and India will build a whole lot of them if they think that’s best way to power economic development for another 1.5 billion people.
A coal plant is a commitment. You don’t build one (let alone hundreds) unless you’re planning to run them for decades. So one of the most important questions you ask yourself before plunking down all that capital is: How much will the fuel cost – not just today, but 10, 20, 30 years from now? Fuel price forecasting is notoriously risky business, but at a minimum you want to know that there’s a lot of fuel available, and that there will be enough different suppliers to give buyers some competitive leverage.
This is one of the most important reasons why we are compelled to stop coal export from the Powder River Basin (PRB), through Northwest ports, to Asian markets. The PRB is among the largest coal deposits in the world, and the cheapest to extract. The all-important question that this coal answers is not “Where will China and India get coal tomorrow?” The question is “Will China and India have unlimited to access to all the world’s coal supplies, giving them enough confidence in future prices to justify construction of a whole generation of new coal plants?” And if the answer is yes, well, Jim Hansen’s going to say that scary thing again.
1) Now, we can’t very well say to China and India: “Sorry, the atmosphere is already full of the carbon that created our prosperity, so you’re out of luck.” But we also can’t say “Go ahead and build out coal-fired economies; and here, take our coal,” because then we are all toast, scientifically speaking. The only fair way forward is for the developed economies to pioneer a new, sustainable prosperity that works for us for the long haul and for the billions more who will surely follow the best path to prosperity available to them. That’s what we’re trying to do in the Pacific Northwest. And coal export is, well, the opposite of that.
2) James Fallows and others contend that there’s no way around the coal, so the only hope is rapid development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. The jury is out on whether it will prove more cost-effective to clean up an inherently dirty resource, compared to technology that more efficiently and cheaply captures clean energy. But if you’re betting on CCS, then the LAST thing you want is for a whole new generation of coal plants to be built now, with neither the technical nor the geological requirements for CCS. If we lock ourselves in to conventional fossil infrastructure now, then breakthroughs in CCS or clean energy technology will be too little, too late. Opening a mainline from the fastest growing energy markets to the world’s cheapest coal would encourage exactly that outcome. The most important and devastating result of siting coal export facilities in the Northwest would be sending a strong economic signal that would make it much more likely that China will develop more coal infrastructure, without CCS, in the next decade.
3) For a nice big elegant picture of the whole climate game, see Design to Win, prepared by California Environmental Associates with the able assistance of many of our favorite certified smart people in 2007…so yeah, it’s a little dated, but still useful. “First, don’t lose,” is a whole section in that paper.