Ask a typical college student about “environmentally friendly” energy sources, and the student will usually respond with comments on wind energy, solar energy, or at least “renewable fuels.” Coal would never make the list.
But as an economist, I’m always teaching students about trade-offs. There is no energy source that is costless, either financially or in terms of environmental degradation. Wind energy, for example, requires metals that have to be mined, access roads and transmission lines that must be extended into remote areas, and backup generators on standby—which are burning fossil fuels. Oh, and wind turbines swat birds out of the sky.
The desirability of an energy source, then, depends on its advantages relative to the alternatives. And so even the widely despised coal-fired power plant may be environmentally friendly, relative to some energy sources.
According to the World Health Organization, “around three billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal.” This means soot and other pollutants are released into the air that people most want to keep clean—the air inside our homes, the air we breathe a large fraction of the time. The WHO says that “over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.” Some of these, the WHO says, are children under 5 who succumb to pneumonia. Others die of stroke, heart disease, and lung diseases. Women, who statistically are more likely to spend time indoors standing or sitting over these open flames, are more susceptible than men to this source of air pollution. In addition, women and children spend a lot of time gathering fuel—taking away from the time they could spend gaining an education or working for money that would improve their lives in other ways. The WHO also points out that “the lack of access to electricity for at least 1.2 billion people (many of whom then use kerosene lamps for lighting) creates other health risks, e.g. burns, injuries and poisonings from fuel ingestion, as well as constraining other opportunities for health and development, e.g. studying or engaging in small crafts and trades, which require adequate lighting.”
Coal is a more polluting source of electricity than natural gas, heating oil, or solar energy—there is little doubt about that. But in much of the world, it is cheaper than these other energy sources, and is therefore likely to be the quickest and most realistic way to expand electricity availability to the three billion people worldwide who currently are laboring over smoky open flames and lighting with hazardous liquid fuels. Coal power could therefore contribute to pollution reduction in homes, by reducing the eye-stinging, disease-inducing smoke that is a fact of existence for the world’s poorest.
And this is what too many opponents of coal fail to understand. When well-intentioned people in wealthier countries insist that the developing world adopt cleaner (and less affordable) methods of generating electricity, they are unwittingly advocating a path that makes it more difficult for billions of the planet’s most needy people to avoid discomfort, disease, and death.