Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Europe's return to coal

Author:  Brittany Raffa
Date:  July 2008

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air."

So goes the chanting of witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth refering to the smog produced from coal burning in 16th century England. The burning of coal continued into the Industrial Revolution but began to be replaced in the early 1900s with oil and natural gas. However, because of the new industrial revolution occuring in developing countries and the high prices of oil in developed ones, coal is making a surprising comeback.

With meetings between heads of state and new laws being passed throughout Europe and the U.S. to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, one would assume that serious efforts are being made to alleviate global warming. Just this April, European and Japanese leaders met in Tokyo for a summit where they declared the need for "ambitious and binding" agreements to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But in the same month a paradoxical decision was made by leading European countries with their decision to return to coal as a source of fuel.

Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and Britain will open 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years. The opening of several coal plants may seem trivial in light of the fact that India and China open one coal-fired plant practically every week. But these are nations (excluding the Czech Republic) who have been at the forefront in the cause to lower carbon dioxide emission. In their defense, many electricity companies such as Enel explain that it is not as black and white as it seems. According to the companies, there really is not another feasible choice to address the need for fuel. Italy and Germany have banned nuclear power plants, and with the 151% rise of fuel costs since 1996, electricity costs must be lowered somehow.

Italy's largest power company, Enel, will be opening the new plant in Civitavecchia, Italy. Enel and others are stressing the advantages of coal, which include coal reserves which last 200 years compared to 50 years for gas and oil, a cheaper price compared to oil and natural gas, and no coal cartel, allowing negotiable prices.

"In order to get over oil, which is getting more and more expensive, our plan is to convert all oil plants to coal using clean-coal technologies," announced Gianfilippo Mancini, Enel's chief of generation of energy management. "This will be the cleanest coal plant in Europe. We are hoping to prove that is will be possible to make sustainable and environmentally friendly use of coal."

"Clean coal? " Is it the newest oxymoron to add to the list of "jumbo shrimp" and "civil war"? However, a recent invention might really allow the burning of coal without carbon dioxide emission through a process termed gasification. Gasification does not directly burn the coal, but breaks the coal into its basic chemical entities, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen, using high temperature and pressure. The carbon dioxide is captured from a gas stream with more ease and efficiency than do traditional smokestacks. Once captured, the carbon dioxide is stored rather released into the atmosphere.

Experts think that coal gasification might become the basis of clean coal techniques if problems concerning lifespan of refractories and cost are solved. Refractories have a lifespan of only 12 to 16 months, and relining the gasifier costs $1 million and takes three to six weeks to complete. Until models are advanced, the use of gasification would not be possible.

In many aspects, the new Enel plant is a paradigm of progress in conservation. The nitrous oxide produced is chemically altered to form ammonia, which is then sold. An on-site desalination plant produces its own water for cooling, and the heated water that comes out is used to heat one of Italy's largest fish farms. But the one aspect that the plant cannot yet address is that of carbon dioxide emissions. Enel announced that it will start experiments with carbon-capture technology in 2015 and should have a solution by 2020.

"That's too late," Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, responded. He explained that the problem cannot be addressed for several years, despite the favorable gasification results, because solving the problem will take billions of dollars and international coordination. The problem of extravagant costs is what caused the closure in January of a U.S. project in carbon-capture. The Bush administration ended experiments at a coal-plant in Illinois because of overlooked costs. The project started in 2003 with a budget of $950 million, but by this year $1.5 billion had already been spent and it wasn't near completion.

This summer, from July 7th to 8th, the G8 summit will take place in the Japanese island Hokkaido, and climate change will be one of the major concerns addressed. The impacts in developing countries such as China and India are unsettling. There is an expected 37% decrease in wheat, rice and corn yields in China in the second half of this century and a 30% decrease in rainfall in three of China's main river basins. The rising sea level will submerge an area along the eastern Chinese sea border that is the size of Portugal and home to half of the country's population. Floods in India in 2005 killed over 1,000 people costing more than US$250 million in damage. Other issues such as "permits" for emissions will likely be discussed. Currently, companies in countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, a pact to reduce greenhouse gases, have a particular emission allowance of carbon dioxide. If a country exceeds the emission limits they can buy unused permits from companies that fell under their emission allowance. This trading scheme of "permits for emissions" has become nicknamed "permits to pollute."

The actions of Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and Great Britain to open the coal plants have been met with protests by the citizens. In Civitavecchia, a city near Rome where the first boiler will open in two months, the townspeople are frustrated; despite the majority of citizens voting no in a local referendum in 2007, the plant went ahead anyway. There are also rumors that Enel won approval for the coal plant by buying medical equipment for a local hospital.

"They call it clean coal' because they use some filters, but it is really nonsense," said Marza Marzioli who lives in the nearby town of Tarquinia and is a member of the No Coal citizens group. "If you compare it to old plants, yes it's better, but it's not clean' in any way."

Complaints on the burning of coal date back to 1272 when King Edward I of England banned the burning of coal after complaints by nobles. Whoever was caught burning or selling it was sentenced to execution or torture. However, it deterred few and eventually the law was abandoned. In 1661, the well-known writer John Evelyn wrote an anitcoal treatise entitled FUMIFUNGIUM: or the Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke of London Dissipated which urges the King and Parliament to solve the problems caused by the burning of coal in London.

Evelyn wrote, "And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismal Cloud of SEACOALE?...so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Air, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour."

Seacole is the name used for coal because it was transported to cities throughout England by sea.

Skirting the solution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions is comparable to taking a route which loops around a mountain until eventually reaching the peak, as if the path were a child's slinky gradually encircling the mountain's width from bottom upward. But in reality, wouldn't the peak be reached much faster if all efforts were set upon arriving at the top by going straight up? As the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch wrote in the The Ascent of Mount Ventoux, "(I was) looking for the longer and easier path and stumbling only into longer difficulties." The opening of new coal plants in Europe will create more fuel, thus decreasing natural gas and oil prices. However, twenty years from now how will it bring us any closer to the goal of reducing global warming? Is it simply a detour keeping us from solving the problem and reaching the mountain top?

The process of carbon-capture appears the only hope for making coal use as a fuel environmentally-safe. Referring to the companies that are opening the plants, Stephan Singer, who runs the European energy and climate office of the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels, said, "If they want coal to be part of the energy solution, they have to show us that carbon capture can be done now, that they can really reduce emissions." The analogy James E. Hansen, a leading climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, used is just as candid: "Given our knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize climate, this plan is like barging into a war without having a plan for how it should be conducted, even though information is available."

Related Articles:

(1)The Great Smog of 1952 that killed 4,000 Londoners: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/education/secondary/students/smog.html

(2)The Ballad of Gresham College: A comic excerpt from the poem appears on the last page of the site. http://www.meteogroup.co.uk/uk/home/weather/weather_news/news_archive/archive/2007/january/ch/bdb568b398/article/fog_and_filthy_air.html











Written by Brittany Raffa

Reviewed by Nira Datta

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.