Today, my inbox is bombarded with emails from enviros and clean energy advocates, some of whom say that Biden’s (and Obama’s) support of clean coal is “abysmal, absolutely abysmal.” I could not disagree more.
I have this argument with enviros all the time. Tuesday, I argued the point with Ted Glick, the national coordinator of the US Climate Emergency Council on Earthbeat radio. You can listen to the audio here.
Yes, I think it is mistake to use the term “clean coal” — especially since it is only in the last few years that many people (but not all) have begun to use it as a synonym for coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Yes, you can’t make coal “clean” in any meaningful sense of the word, which is why I prefer using “coal with CCS.” And yes, I have spelled out my views in detail that coal with CCS is almost certainly not going to be a practical and affordable climate solution for the next two decades (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“), which happens to be the same conclusion of a new McKinsey report.
That said, the nation and the world are in a very desperate situation. To avoid 5°C or more warming this century, to avoid ruining the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, we must replace most of the world’s energy system in the next few decades with carbon free technology while working with developing countries to ensure they build their economy primarily around carbon free technology — see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution.” And then in the second half of the century, we’re going to have to replace all of the remaining dirty technology with carbon-free technology.
Indeed, if you believe the nation’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, who has arguably been right longer about the climate than anyone else, then our goal must be to get atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide back below current levels — and that means net global carbon emissions from humans (including deforestation) need to be near zero or below zero by 2100 (see “Hansen (et al) must read: Get back to 350 ppm or risk an ice-free planet“). If you want to get back below 350 ppm, the world would need to begin large-scale deployment of carbon-negative technology and energy systems that pull carbon out of the air and put it somewhere.
That’s why I believe it is utterly immoral not to aggressively pursue the development of any plausible low-carbon or zero-carbon technology that has the potential for large scale (several hundred gigawatt) deployment. And serious analysis, like McKinsey’s, says that coal with CCS could be economical by 2030. Moreover, a CCS power plant that runs on coal blended with cellulosic biomass is one of the most plausible carbon-negative forms of electricity you can imagine. So we must pursue the development of coal with CCS, which is what Obama and Biden and virtually every other energy/climate policymaker and analyst mean when they use the term.
Whether a given carbon-free technology should ultimately be the focus of large-scale deployment efforts depends mostly on its cost, and we simply don’t know whether clean coal will make the cut. All we know today is that it has a very large hurdle to jump, as I’ve argued. Certainly our focus for the next two decades needs to be on the massively scalable carbon-free technologies that are cost-effective now or are in the process of becoming so — efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“).
As Obama has said famously said, a president needs to be able to do more than one thing at a time. To solve the climate problem, we must massively deploy the current generation of clean tech while developing the next generation. And that is his energy policy (see “Breaking news — A real energy plan for America: Efficiency now, 10% renewables by 2012, and one million plug-in hybrids by 2015“).
So what precisely was so abysmal about what Biden said Thursday night. Let’s look at the transcript of everything he said on energy, climate and clean coal: