It’s the Coal, Stupid

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443px-Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2.jpg Burning fossil fuels accounts for 80 percent of the rise of atmospheric CO2 in industrial times. Now NASA researchers Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen show that CO2 can be kept below harmful levels as long as emissions from coal are phased out within the next few decades. In other words, we can burn all the oil and gas that’s left on Earth and still avoid really dangerous climate change.

Previous research shows the super dangerous level of global warming will occur if CO2 in the atmosphere exceeds a concentration of 450 parts per million. It’s currently at about 385 ppm, up from a pre-industrial 280 ppm.

The research revolved around five emissions scenarios spanning the years 1850-2100. Each reflects a different estimate for peak of fossil fuel production—an important yet unknown variable. On one end was the “business-as-usual” scenario. The other scenarios included reducing emissions from coal. First by developed countries starting in 2013. Then by developing countries a decade later. Finally leading to a global phase out by 2050. The last three scenarios consider different dates for peak oil.

The bottom line is clear. . .

Even if we calculate unconstrained emissions from conventional oil and gas, there is simply not enough of these fuels left to take CO2 above 450 parts per million. On the other hand, coal and unconventional fuels like methane hydrates and tar sands contain much more fossil carbon than conventional oil and gas and should be pahsed out or never started up in the first place.

“Because coal is much more plentiful than oil and gas, reducing coal emissions is absolutely essential to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change brought about by atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration exceeding 450 parts per million,” Kharecha said. “The most important mitigation strategy we recommend—a phase-out of carbon dioxide emissions from coal within the next few decades—is feasible using current or near-term technologies.”

Cut the coal, save the world. Clean coal? Don’t be an oxymoron.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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