New Focus on Coal's Part in Warming

James E. Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute said nations could use less coal if energy efficiency got more attention.
James E. Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute said nations could use less coal if energy efficiency got more attention. (By Melanie Patterson -- The Daily Iowan Via AP)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

James E. Hansen, perhaps the best-known scientific advocate for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, sent a letter recently to the head of one of the nation's largest power companies, calling on him to confront the role that his coal-fired plants play in global warming. Hansen proposed they meet.

On Wednesday, James E. Rogers of Duke Energy accepted Hansen's invitation, though he made clear he does not foresee calling off plans to build more of the power plants that Hansen considers a main culprit in climate change.

The exchange, carried out in full public view, highlights both a recent shift in the climate debate and the difficulty of translating this change into concrete action.

Rogers does not question humans' contribution to global warming, and he has pledged to largely "decarbonize" his company's operations by mid-century. But he is not moving as fast as environmental activists would like, and some academics are now arguing that scientists have greatly underestimated the technological leap that will be required in coming decades to curb dangerous warming.

The same day Rogers informed Hansen that he was willing to meet, Roger Pielke Jr., a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, co-wrote a commentary piece in the journal Nature that said the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made assumptions about technological advances that are "optimistic at best and unachievable at worst" when it comes to increasing energy efficiency.

While industrialized nations such as the United States and those in Europe have made gains in recent years, developed nations such as China and India have not. As Pielke and his colleagues wrote, "In recent years, global energy intensity and carbon intensity have both increased, reversing the trends of previous decades."

Even developed countries are not cutting greenhouse gases as fast as they had anticipated. The European Union released preliminary data last week indicating that emissions from facilities covered by Europe's cap-and-trade system rose 1 percent in 2007, instead of declining. That means it will be harder than expected for companies to meet tighter emissions limits this year. The report sent prices for emissions permits for December 2008 up 4 percent, to $36.60 a ton on the European Climate Exchange in London.

Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that the United States and other countries could wean themselves off coal rapidly if they put a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable resources. He recently submitted a paper to the journal Science saying that the world must reduce the current level of carbon dioxide-equivalents in the atmosphere from 385 parts per million to 350 parts per million to avoid dangerous effects of climate change.

"We simply cannot burn the coal and put the CO2in the atmosphere and avoid having serious changes in the atmosphere," he said. "The scientists are beginning to realize we have to have a much more dramatic change in direction."

Former vice president Al Gore said in an interview last week that he backs Hansen's approach, with one modification: Because carbon capture and storage technology is still not widely available, he said, "I think we ought to have a moratorium on any coal-fired power plant that doesn't have the capacity to capture carbon."

But Rogers, who praised Hansen as "an early voice in the wilderness" on climate change, said the scientist's demand reflects a "snap-your-fingers, instant transition of the economy" mind-set.

"My requirement is to balance reliability, affordability and clean energy," Rogers said. "He's apparently focused on the clean perspective."

In his letter, Hansen took aim at two of Duke's planned power plants, in Cliffside, N.C., and Edwardsport, Ind., telling Rogers: "Your suggestion that new, more efficient coal-fired power plants, which do not capture CO2, can be part of a solution ignores the basic facts and urgency of terminating coal emissions."

Rogers responded that he will be shutting down 1,000 megawatts of capacity from older power plants as part of the Cliffside project, and that the Edwardsport facility is a commercial coal-gasification plant that "is located in an area with excellent geology" to experiment with technologies for capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground.

Americans are not the only ones puzzling through the transition from a coal-dependent to a low-carbon energy supply. Rachel Crisp, deputy director of Britain's cleaner fossil fuels unit, said last week that her country had just picked nine candidates for its first carbon capture and storage plant, but that other than Norway, "you don't have other countries lining up and investing serious funding" in this technology.

"We're going forward with ours, so we'll see how it turns out," she said.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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