U.S., China Commit to Coal... and to Climate Change?

Plus, Avian Flu Traced to Factory Farms, The Good and Bad of Carbon, and more in the January/February 2007 Issue of World Watch

Washington, D.C.—Even as state and local politicians strategize on how to diversify the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels, more than 150 new coal-fired power plants are being built across the country, according to Susan Moran, author of “Coal Rush” in the January/February 2007 issue of World Watch magazine. Moran observes that despite generating nearly 32 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) output in 2004 and being one of “the biggest culprits behind climate change,” U.S. energy providers still have seemingly reckless plans to bank on “Old King Coal.”

According to Moran, large utility companies like TXU Energy, American Electric Power, and Xcel Energy are expanding coal-fired power plants in part because of growing consumer electricity demands and steep natural gas prices. But another motivation, critics say, is the rising specter of mandatory emissions caps, driven by awakening U.S. fears about climate change. Utilities may hope to see their new plants “grandfathered in” if the federal government imposes strict limits on carbon emissions; meanwhile, the facilities will be emitting vast quantities of CO2 over their 50-year lifetimes. Investments in antiquated coal technologies could end up costing billions of dollars annually, even if the utilities are required to comply with carbon caps, and may not be financially prudent, Moran argues.

AS ITS COAL HABIT WORSENS, CHINA COULD SOON SURPASS THE U.S. IN CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS

In China, a country with more than 1 trillion tons of coal reserves—12 percent of the world’s total—widespread and growing use of coal-fired power plants will likely lead to irreversible environmental damage and costs billions of dollars, write World Watch contributors Hou Yanli and Hu Min in “China and Her Coal.” The authors note that the “air pollution index in one-third of all monitored cities in China is above 100,” and that coal-related pollution is costing China over 3 percent of GDP annually in economic losses. They call for the establishment of concrete reduction targets and policy incentives to improve extraction recovery rates, increase development of clean coal technology, and reduce environmental and safety costs.

BACKYARD FARMERS IN DEVELOPING WORLD UNFAIRLY SHOULDER AVIAN FLU BLAME

International agencies focus on “the backyard chicken” but the growth of confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) and their proximity to congested cities in the developing world are the real culprits behind the spread of avian flu, writes Worldwatch researcher Danielle Nierenberg in “A Fowl Plague.” In Laos, for example, 42 of the 45 outbreaks of avian flu in the spring of 2004 occurred at factory farms, and the few small farms where outbreaks occurred were located near commercial operations. According to Nierenberg, “while H5N1 (the deadly strand of avian flu) may have been a product of the world’s factory farms, it’s small producers who have the most to lose.” At the same time, factory farms receive subsidies on feed and avoid paying for both the spread of disease and the ecological impacts of farm waste and other outputs. “The system ignores or punishes small farmers, threatens their livelihoods, and puts us all at risk for a potential pandemic,” Nierenberg concludes.

CLIMATE-ALTERING EMISSIONS ASIDE, CARBON MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT ON EARTH

From its creation approximately 300 million years ago to its future use in lightweight airplanes and automobiles, carbon remains fundamental to life on Earth and to all human activities, observes Todd Neff in his article “Portraits in Carbon.” According to Neff, the U.S. Department of Energy “is spending more than $100 million through 2009 to understand the technical feasibility of storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide under U.S. soil.” At the same time, carbon’s many champions praise the element for its potential application in transistors, solar cells, artificial muscles, and much, much more.

ALSO IN THE JANUARY/FEBRUARY ISSUE:

SHED THAT EXCESS CARBON!

In this month's “Green Guidance” column, Paul W. McRandle writes that, “while most individuals can’t build more public transport or wind-power plants [to reduce rising greenhouse gas emissions], they can invest in greater energy efficiency.” McRandle offers hands-on suggestions for cutting down on energy use and calculates how much carbon we can save by embracing such practices as line-drying clothes, supporting “green” utility companies, and replacing old refrigerators and other appliances with more efficient models.

A REVIEW OF THE GREAT WARMING

Worldwatch’s Suzanne Hunt reviews the recent Canadian film about climate change narrated by Keanu Reaves and Alanis Morissette, calling it “a family-oriented version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.”

EYE ON EARTH: FEATURED TOPICS

Organic Farmers Feeling the Squeeze at Both Ends
Sustainability is Growing Theme of Business Schools
Salmon Farms Spread Deadly Lice to Wild Salmon

MATTERS OF SCALE: WORLDWIDE TELEPHONE, INTERNET, TV & RADIO USE

 

Benin

China

Ecuador

India

Saudi Arabia

United States

# of people per landline

102

3.7

7.9

22

7.1

1.1

# of people per cell phone

20

3.3

2.2

16

2.0

1.4

# of people per Internet user

18

12

22

18

11

1.5

# of radio stations

11

628

427

244

73

13,750

# of TV stations

1

3,240

7

562

117

2,218

SOURCES: Calculations based on data in the CIA World Factbook as of November 13, 2006

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