A View from David Talbot

"Get Coal Out of the System"

Combating climate change requires dealing with coal emissions–and misinformation, an MIT figure says.

To reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to avert the worst effects of climate change, “we have to get coal out of the system.” That succinct bottom line was delivered yesterday by Henry Jacoby, professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School and codirector of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, in a keynote talk at a conference in Washington, DC. Jacoby didn’t mean that coal can’t be used–just that its carbon-dioxide emissions will need to be removed and disposed of by underground burial. The good news, he said, is that although the scale of the enterprise would be massive, there is no apparent technology obstacle: “We can solve the technology. We can solve the storage.” But the roadblocks ahead are monstrous: uncertainty over whether the Obama administration and Congress will institute a carbon cap-and-trade policy, unclear economics of installing CO2 capture and storage technologies, and widespread public ignorance.

Jacoby pointed to “coal’s catch-22”: when it comes to burying the CO2, “you can’t have the technology without the price, but you can’t have the price without the technology.” In other words, you won’t drive technology adoption unless there’s a cap-and-trade or other disincentive on emitting CO2, but you can’t know what it will cost to do this–and thus how to operate under such a policy–until you start installing the needed technologies at huge scale. (Today, coal supplies about half of U.S. electricity, but no U.S. coal plant sequesters its CO2.) And right now, the general public–despite awareness of the benefits of, say, wind and solar power–doesn’t have much of a clue what “carbon capture and sequestration” means. In surveys, Jacoby said, Americans ranked it as the least advisable approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions–even though it’s one of the most important ones. (He thinks some people might be confusing it with pouring toxic waste down the nearest hole.) The industry’s recent “clean coal” ad blitz doesn’t help much, he said, because the ads gloss over the central importance of CO2 burial and don’t spell out what that would entail. “They need to explain what ‘clean coal’ means in this context. If you want to save the coal industry, explain to the public what is involved in this technology,” Jacoby said.