It’s Not All About Carbon

Why is it that every time someone proposes a wind turbine there is immediate opposition because of consequent bird mortality? And at the same time, when we build or expand a coal operation, the reaction isn’t to remember all the miners that have sacrificed their lives so that you and I can turn on the lights? Why is the reaction to dirty coal to promote clean coal? It might help keep the carbon emissions down, but it doesn’t cut down on the human toll of coal.

Recently there have been highly publicized stories of miners trapped in deep mines in Chile, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Zealand, and China – and those are just the ones I heard about through traditional news outlets. However, the hype over such accidents quickly fades and the families and communities touched by the tragedy are left with the cleanup. These miners represent the human face and sacrifice of coal-fired electricity. They should join the ranks of the polar bear in symbolizing the need for better energy choices.

There is something very compelling about the ability to track carbon emissions, count successes as we veer away from the projected worst-case scenario, and begin to form economic market solutions to the carbon pollution problem. Given that energy production is the largest contributor to global emissions, carbon counting also represents a tractable problem with a multitude of possible solutions targeting a single industry. But we are perhaps failing to see the forest through the trees.

Global climate change is ripe with issues of human and environmental justice as the stories of the trapped and deceased miners attests to. Like most problems, a single indicator is inadequate to evaluate our ability to mediate climate change. If it were all about carbon, for instance, then clean coal and coal gasification would offer the ultimate solution – just scrub the pollutants out of the smokestacks before they have a chance to enter the global environment and viola – problem solved. But what about the human costs of mining and the disappearing mountains at the supply end of that production chain?

If coal seems like a lose-lose solution, careful investigation of many other options doesn’t offer much more hope. Natural gas, often offered up as another source of domestic fossil fuel, also burns cleaner than both traditional petroleum products and coal. According to EPA, “natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future”. However, it is extracted through the process of hydraulic fracturing, which is known to contaminate groundwater to the point that nearby citizens can set their well water on fire and is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. So, you may ask yourself, is this really America’s cleaner future?

Protest in China, thanks BBC

Looking at solar power, the picture doesn’t really get much better. Squeaky clean carbon profile but toxic production and not exactly stellar lifetime. A village in China has apparently figured out that it’s not all about carbon after fish downstream of a solar panel factory washed up dead. The factory shut down after villagers protested. A cleaner America was making a village in China dirtier.

Of course we have to find energy somewhere – and in all likelihood, that process will come at some cost in a non-carbon environmental arena. And of course, overall carbon budget needs to be addressed to bring it back in line with a more natural and sustainable carbon cycle. However, as we move forward to a sustainable future, we need to remember that carbon is only one aspect of a complex environment, of which all angles deserve protection. Perhaps most of all the humans.