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Can we clean King Coal and live happily ever after?

September 11th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 23. Can King Coal be cleaned?

Listen to the interview with David MacKay on Today

(Instructions on how to join are at the bottom of the original post)

Should we adopt the Ise Shrine notion of sustainability? No - the issue is really about costly irreversible action, not keeping doing what we do for a very, very long time. 

Clean coal will probably reduce the efficiency of the coal to electrical eneergy conversion process by about 1/3 -- from almost 40% to about 25%. Cleaning coal uses up coal at a greater rate. But if it does so in a climate-friendly way, why not?

Quite. But David's MacKay's concern is not entirely about environmental friendliness -- he is asking the question of whether the UK can keep living more or less as it is within its own energy budget. The logic of this is to say: "if we  control what we can most easily control---our own lifestyles---and we can live within our energy and climate-asset budgets ... and if all other nations can, then that's a sufficient condition for having cracked the problem." (Economists keen on trade and exploiting comparative advantage would say it is not a necessary condition -- maybe we can do so even better by being less autarkic...).

David adopts an avowedly arbitrary definition of a sustainable burn rate: can a burn-rate be sustained for 1000 years? If yes, it is sustainable. That definition allows him to relate the UK's coal reserves with a daily per person sustainable consumption rate --- there would be less than 1 kWh of electricity per person available from clean coal. But we consume 180 kWh/day/person, so clean coal is a stop gap --- it will not see our way of life go on for that long.

This relies pretty crucially on the definition of sustainability, which I think is wrong for the purpose. David adopts what one might call the Ise Shrine notion of sustainability. The Ise Shrine was first built in 4BC and has been rebuilt, identically, ever since then every 20 years. It was last rebuilt in 1993. This is "sustainability" as in keeping on and on doing the same thing. David is ISe-esque in choosing our ability to do the same thing - burn British coal - for a very long time to come.

But the concept that really bites in "unsustainable" development, I think, are processes that do irreparable damage, not processes that cannot conceivably continue for a very long time. So if we had clean coal, we could deplete UK reserves in 100 years rather than 1000 and spend that time developing other solutions and infrastructure. There is nothing fundamentally unsustainable in that approach. At 10 times the depletion rate David suggests, clean-coal generated electricity could satisfy at tenth and a twentieth of our daily energy needs, which is not to be sniffed at.

So while David is right that this is a stop-gap, sustainability should not throw out the right stop-gaps.


(David revives Jevons' very interesting 1865 forecast of the decline of British power based on the depletion of coal reserves. Ian Jack reviews Andy Beckett's history of the 70s in the LRB and reminds us of the pessimism that surrounded just the nadir that Jevons had forecast. North Sea oil, of course, was not in Jevons' forecast ....)