STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's follow up, next, on the International Climate Conference that was held last month in Copenhagen. Governments of some of the world's most polluting countries are scheduled to announce, next Monday, how much they're willing to limit their emissions of gases linked to global warming. If they are serious about meeting their commitments, they will all have to give some serious thought to the coal that they use.
NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It used to be that coal was king in the U.S. It's still royalty - half our electricity comes from it - but now coal is guo wang that's king in Chinese.
Mr. RICHARD MORSE (Energy Analyst, Stanford University): Coal is 80 percent of all power generation in China. And the Chinese use of coal is really one of the largest drivers of global coal consumption and, hence, global emissions.
JOYCE: That's Richard Morse, an energy analyst at Stanford University.
Coal is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases. China and India are now huge consumers of coal, and their appetite is growing.
Mr. MORSE: As long as economic development is a priority, I think climate takes a back seat, and in that situation, coal is going to win every time.
JOYCE: That's the conventional wisdom. But the deal made in Copenhagen may change that. By Monday, as many as two dozen countries will have listed their emissions targets. China and the U.S. the two biggest coal users are leading the group. India - another big coal power - is expected to join them; so will South Africa a major coal exporter.
So, it's governments whose economies depend on coal who are now driving climate diplomacy by saying, okay, we'll cut our greenhouse gas emissions. And that means these countries will have to wrestle with the coal conundrum we can't live without it, but we can't live with it.
One energy expert who's watched this unfold is Trevor Houser, with the research firm RHG in New York. Houser advised the U.S. climate team in Copenhagen. He says China actually might like to get off the coal train.
Mr. TREVOR HOUSER (RHG): The coal in China is mined primarily in the northwest of the country, but the demand for that coal is in the east, and getting that coal from the mine to the power plant on the coast is a challenging and expensive undertaking.
Two years ago, an epic snowstorm shut down that supply chain. Power went out for millions of Chinese. Even China's trains stood still, stranding tens of thousands of people and a lot of coal. Houser says it's the lack of a reliable and cheap way to transport coal that is pushing China to look for alternatives fuels.
Mr. HOUSER: I think China has a strong incentive to move away from coal. I think there's going to be technical and economic challenges doing it, but there's certainly a policy push to go that direction.
JOYCE: As for the other big consumer of coal the U.S. the Obama administration has pledged to encourage more green energy from things like wind and solar power, and to subsidize more efficient use of energy. But as energy economist Henry Jacoby of MIT points out, displacing coal is politically risky.
Professor HENRY JACOBY (Energy Economy, MIT): There are something like 22 states in the United States that have some level of coal production. And, of course, that's not all the states that care about it, because there are a number of other states whose electric power systems are heavily dependent on coal.
JOYCE: Jacoby points out something that politicians are loath to admit: Switching away from coal, which is cheap so long as its negative environmental effects are not counted, will cost some consumers more on their utility bills.
Prof. JACOBY: If we don't have enough understanding of the climate issue for people to say, well, it's going to cost me a little bit more but I think it's important enough - if we can't get to that point in the Congress then we're not going to deal with a climate issue. It's a depressing thought.
JOYCE: But the Obama administration thinks there's an answer: clean coal. That means extracting hydrogen from the coal and using that to make electricity without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Department of Energy is spending $404 million this fiscal year to figure out how to do that. The Chinese government is also investing in the technology.
So, if coal does remain a big part of the energy mix for a few decades more, it may be by virtue of a new, untested technology whose final cost can only be guessed at.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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