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Coal is the major source of emissions.


The Wonders of Carbon
Carbon, element 6, is as important as gravity as an organising force in the universe. Gravity makes balls - asteroids, planets, stars - while Carbon makes life.
Carbon is the only element with trillions of compounds. Over vast lengths of time, a subtle balance of DNA, RNA, proteins and other molecules has resulted in living things. They are able to know and exploit their environments, but finally they led to us, with the intelligence for abstract thought and an understanding of the universe itself. The universe can now modify itself by something other than the raw forces of gravity and quantum mechanics.

Humans are one species which can take part in the work of creating otherwise impossible constructions. Life for humans is incredibly more fun and fascinating than for any plant or animal. We are all unhappy to leave it, but we are on the way to extending longevity by centuries. This will require much wisdom to handle, a substance very rare on the planet.

Many other long chain molecules are very valuable, notably the family of plastics which underpin much of our civilisation today. These are mostly made from oil by-products which will be less available this century.

Carbon has the highest melting point of any element, which is why it can freeze out as diamonds in magma as it cools below 3200 C, while the rest stay molten. Carbon can assemble in many forms including carbon fibres and Graphene with extraordinary properties of strength and electrical properties suited to electrical applications.

Pure carbon cannot burn in air, oxygen, or steam below 2000 C. Reactor grade Graphite is a strong structural material well suited to use in some nuclear reactors which are then fireproof.

Carbon is a critical material for our civilisation and for life itself. Coal is our largest source of easily accessible carbon.
Do we have to burn it?

The Bounty and Blight of Coal

Coal burns easily because of its impurities which catalyse the reaction of carbon with air. The Industrial Revolution, and our electricity industry today was entirely due to the use of coal. It is found in almost every country. There is enough to power society at the current rate for 500 years. Life would still be 95% agrarian, with a small population, without coal.
Pig Iron is made from stacks of iron ore, limestone, and coal to produce. The Bessemer process was the first efficient method to burn out the excess carbon in the iron to make steel with a low carbon content. Modern open hearth furnaces do the same thing and electro-refining gives fine control of the alloys for high performance steels. Steel is snother major plank of our civilisation.
We see that coal was the starter for our industrial and highly productive society, but will be finished in this millennium if we choose to burn it all. The Coal Library has a number of papers on better uses for coal.
The carbon in coal, gas, and oil is all converted to carbon dioxide, CO2. Carbon has an atomic mass of 12, Oxygen 16, and so CO2 has a mass of 44. A tonne of coal produces agout 3 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide which is pumped into the atmosphere, like garbage into a river. One might think that the CO2 would disperse into the vastness of the atmosphere and do no harm, but microscopic amounts of poison from a black widow spider can kill you.

Global Warming
A 1 Gigawatt power station would burn a million tonnes of coal a year and emit 3 million tonnes of CO2. The background to this page, an opencast coal mine, gives you an impression of the scale of the coal production. The bite from all our coal fired power station is not small compared with the modest amount existing in the whole atmosphere, about 2800 Gigatonnes (billion t). Our emissions from all fossil fuels are set to take the total up to 3600 Gt by 2050.
Life on the planet is a major regulator of natural CO2 emissions and absorptions. The oceans exchange huge amounts with the atmosphere. The many flows of CO2 are exceedingly complex but the net result is more easily measured. It is steadily increasing. An average residence time for CO2 dumped to atmosphere ranges between 200 and 400 years, based on long herm estimates of emissions and CO2 levels over the last couple of centuries.
This means that emissions accumulate. Every new coal station makes the problem worse for centuries so every Gigawatt year of coal adds to the total.
The consequences for global warming are equally hard to calculate. Supercomputers are dedicated to doing the calculations and including more and more data as it is acquired.

There are many ways in which nature can act suddenly, catastrophically, and irreversibly. Global warming pushes us towards several of these possibilities. Average global warming seems to have slowed over the last decade, to the glee of the anti-warming pro-coal lobby. However, the warming of the arctic and antarctic have continued to increase. Melting of their enormous ice reservoirs is one of the most likely triggers for huge consequences.
Place your bets carefully.

Simple prudence demands we pay attention to this and take action to avoid it, just as reactor designers have to be well prepared for the most unlikely events.
All climate scientists agree that the use of coal for electricity should be reduced drastically now. There are better uses for all that carbon.

The Political Responses
Governments are strapped to the wheels of finance, commerce and industry and do not seem to have the leadership to accept the common technical judgement.
The USA, Germany, and Japan have abandoned all pretence that they are willing to restrict coal burning. The emergence of shale gas supplies in the USA has reduced the use of coal, but the industry is now shipping it overseas. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, so leakage from shale gas wells reduces the advertised advantage of gas as a fuel. The Chinese are more concerned, but mainly because of the choking smog in most of their large cities.
You get to choose fun now or very probable disaster for your descendants.
Sketch Hydro Turbine
Hydro Turbine
NREL Curtailment
The NREL Reports
CO2 Cycle
Peak Coal chart
Peak Coal Prediction