As people around the world celebrate Earth Day and call attention to the need to take care of natural resources, it’s not a bad time to note that the use of coal–one of the dirtiest fuels–is going up around the world in spite of the growth of renewable energy and in spite of efforts by environmentalists to decrease its use (see “The Enduring Technology of Coal” and “Renewables Can’t Keep Up with the Growth in Coal Use Worldwide”). That’s because coal is a cheap and abundant source of power that’s been key to a surge in prosperity in the last few decades.
Any efforts to curb the use of coal by increasing its price should take into account the effect that could have on bringing electricity to the poor. This calculation is particularly difficult because the impact of climate change on future generations is uncertain. Will the long-term damage from climate change overwhelm the short term benefits now? Who makes that decision? Who gets to tell the poor that they must put off getting electricity in the interest of future generations?
It’s tempting, especially for someone who writes about energy technology, to say the answer is to fund R&D and wait for technological developments. Breakthroughs, along with the accumulation of incremental advances, might make these difficult decisions easy. At some point, clean sources of energy might be so cheap that banning coal (or requiring the use of extreme technologies for capturing and securely storing all its pollutants) won’t hurt the poor.
But we don’t know that the innovations needed will ever happen, and even if they do, the fact is, they will take a long time to implement. They may reach the point of being able to substantially decrease coal consumption only after a lot of damage–some of which might not be repairable–has been done. Technological innovation won’t make the hard decisions go away (see “Climate Change: The Moral Choices”).