Does coal really care? Almost immediately after a prank website, “Coal Cares” was rolled out yesterday poking fun at Peabody Energy — The world’s largest private coal company — the company fought back with some dubious claims about the health benefits of burning coal.
The site is meant to spoof Peabody’s insistence that increased use of coal is the only way to fuel global prosperity. As numerous studies have pointed out, that is not true.
Peabody issued a statement that “the site is in fact a hoax, making inaccurate claims about Peabody and Coal,” while also itself claiming that “a growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life”¦. The World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer.”
First, WRI never said that. In its own statement released in response to the Peabody claim, the organization wrote “WRI has never made such an assertion and has never done analysis to that effect. Second, this conclusion ignores critical factors related to energy production and human health.”
OK, it’s apparently just a mix-up. But what about the actual claim, which Peabody has made elsewhere?
The conclusion in the press release seems to come from this chart, in a post from the World Climate Report blog, a site devoted to climate skepticism:
The basic math is correct. But the chart simply throws together two data sets without a proper differentiation between different types of energies, the role of efficiency or conservation, or a comparison of the health risks associated with burning coal in developed and developing countries.
In a post about the claims yesterday from Wired Magazine, science reporter Brandon Keim spoke with Julia Gohlke of the University of Alabama, who was the lead author of an analysis that examined industry claims about the health benefits of burning coal:
“In the study, the researchers cross-referenced health data with electricity consumption patterns in 41 countries between 1965 and 2005. They found that in extremely poor countries with high infant mortality and low life expectancy, coal-fired plants indeed improved health: It’s better to burn coal in a centralized location than inside the home, and energy supports sanitation infrastructure. But for wealthier countries, ‘increasing coal consumption was associated with reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality.’ “
Fair enough. When you’re starving to death, rotting food in the trash is going to provide nourishment — even if it makes you sick, you’re better off than you were. But when you’ve got a steady source of food, that rotting sandwich doesn’t make anything better.
While there may be a net increase in prosperity for developing nations in the short- and medium-term when coal is burned, the impact on human life is substantial. In China, a developing country that gets 70% of its electricity from coal, thousands of people die in mining-related accidents each year and, according to the World Bank, more than 700,000 people die from complications associated with air pollution — around half of which are blamed directly on coal.
The BBC reported in 2009, “A senior family planning official in China has noted an alarming rise in the number of babies with birth defects”¦. The coal-mining heartland of Shanxi province had the biggest problem” (see Chinese birth defects “up sharply”).
In addition to being the largest consumer of coal, China also represents the largest market for solar hot water systems (70% of global capacity) — and with a typical system costing around $200, solar thermal is the only affordable way to get hot water in many regions. There are probably a few incidents of poorly-installed systems falling and killing a homeowner; but as far as we can tell, there haven’t been any reported deaths from solar hot water systems. These systems raise the quality of living for rural and urban Chinese, without the ecological and human health impacts.
Clearly, for developing countries an increase in energy use will raise the quality of life and increase economic growth. But Peabody assumes that coal is the only way to meet that objective.
In a recent newsletter sent out by the company, Peabody’s CEO claimed that “coal is the only sustainable fuel, at scale, that can meet the world’s growing electricity needs.” But numerous reports have debunked that claim, including the latest one from the IPCC (see yesterday’s post: “IPCC special report finds renewables could meet over three quarters of global energy needs in 2050”).
As Germany, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, and Upper Austria have proven, double digit penetrations of renewable energy can be achieved while maintaining economic growth. (The economic struggles of Spain and Portugal have been unrelated to renewable energy development. And in the case of Iceland, which gets over 80% of its energy from geothermal and hydro, domestic renewables have helped keep rates low.)
The idea that energy use must increase in order to grow economies and raise human health standards is also inaccurate. In California, due to use of progressive electric-rate structures and conservation measures, per capita electricity use has stayed constant since the mid-70’s — allowing the state to establish aggressive targets for renewable energy production. The state currently has a target of 33% renewable energy by 2020.
And in 2009, the Rocky Mountain Institute found that it was possible to reduce U.S. electricity demand 34 percent by 2020 while maintaining a 2.5 percent annual economic growth rate — and in the meantime, reducing 60% of coal generation in the country. Efficiency, conservation and renewable energy are here today as methods to increase quality of life and economic growth; the idea that coal is the only way to maintain a high quality of life is false.
And as the faux website “Coal Cares” so humorously pointed out, the industry doesn’t want us to believe that.
— Stephen Lacey
- Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”
- British Medical Journal: Climate change “poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill-health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds upon the other.”
- “Coal Cares: Spoof or reality?”
- Coal is not healthy for kids. As one U.S. study found, “Closing coal-fired power plants can have a direct, positive impact on children’s cognitive development and health” (See “If you want smarter kids, shut coal plants”). Hence, Coal for Dummies.