Science Express: Coal, Kyoto, and Inconvenient Truths
Thursday 4 August 2011,
Level 4 Espresso
Listen to the talk
Mike Isaac, GNS Science
Coal is abundant, accessible, and cheap. Demand increased when it replaced charcoal for iron-making – and again when the steam engine became a commercial success. Coal fuelled the industrial revolution. Three hundred years later, coal still underpins 21st century life in the developed world.
World coal consumption is vast – 6,900 million tonnes in 2009. China is by far the biggest user, followed by USA, and India. China is the factory of the world, so their coal use is partly driven by consumer demand in other countries, including New Zealand. Coal is a fundamental ingredient in iron-smelting and steel-making, and in cement manufacture. There are enormous demands for concrete and steel in the developing and developed worlds. Over 40 per cent of the world’s electricity comes from coal. Many countries heavily dependent on coal for electricity don’t enjoy New Zealand’s natural advantages (hydroelectric potential, a world class geothermal resource, and wind potential). Such countries have limited alternatives other than nuclear power. Vast numbers of people in China and India aspire to afford electricity so they can achieve a fraction of the lifestyle that we take for granted.
Coal use is responsible for about a quarter of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – and that’s the problem. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may result in major climate change. To mitigate this risk, many countries made a commitment to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions (the Kyoto Protocol). Signing the protocol was the easy part. World coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are still rising, partly because so much of the world is heavily dependent on coal for electricity, steel, and concrete – pillars of modern life. There will be incremental gains from increased use of renewables, and efficiency improvements, but these may well be offset by increased demands from the rising global population and increased use of coal for fertiliser manufacture and synthetic fuels.
The difficulties and the costs of moving to a low coal (or low carbon) economy have been underappreciated and understated. Mission control, we have a problem …
Mike Isaac worked in the New Zealand coal geology and coal industries for about a decade last century. Subsequently he planned and, for eight years led, the successful QMAP national geological mapping programme. Between 2002 and 2009, he was general manager of the Natural Resources Group at GNS Science, with responsibility for research on oil and gas, mineral resources, geothermal energy, ocean exploration, carbon capture and storage, and climate change. Mike now works for GNS as a geologist, investigating oil and gas potential and studying energy resources, their uses, and their consequences.