Why bury coal?
Leaving coal and other fossil fuels unburned and underground is very important for the long-term safety and prosperity of humanity, as well as the future of natural ecosystems. The same is true for unconventional fossil fuels like oil sands and shale gas.
There are three major reasons to leave coal underground, along with unconventional oil and gas:
If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.
-Gavin A. Schmidt
Because of climate change, coal is no longer a source of energy that can be acceptable for humanity. Its continued use is incompatible with the stable climate upon which human prosperity and civilization depends.
The amount of warming the Earth will experience depends fundamentally on what portion of the planet’s total stock of fossil fuels humanity chooses to burn. The total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that could result from burning different reserves of fossil fuels is shown here:
The higher the bar, the higher the risk for humanity and for natural systems.
Burning all that coal would produce far more warming than burning the world’s stocks of conventional oil and gas. Furthermore, the warming caused by burning those fuels could be enough to melt permafrost and methane hydrates, releasing the carbon dioxide in the rightmost bar. That possibility – known as runaway climate change – could conceivably render the Earth uninhabitable. Because of this risk, and the less severe but more probable risk of dangerous climate change of more than 2°C of warming, coal is dead as a safe and acceptable source of energy. Now, it needs to be buried by people who have the foresight to understand the risk it creates.
Even ignoring climate change, humanity cannot rely on fossil fuels forever. If they are not abandoned, they will eventually run out and, long before that, people will find themselves expending more and more energy and wealth to track down the world’s most inaccessible fossil fuel reserves, located in places like the Arctic and the deep sea.
Even coal, the most abundant fossil fuel, is far from limitless in its quantity. Indeed, if coal use keeps increasing at 3.4% per year, the world’s reserves may only last for 60 years.
Moving beyond fossil fuels offers humanity the opportunity to end our dependence on an energy reserve that was inevitably going to run out anyhow. The question is not whether we make transition to renewable forms of energy, but when. For all manner of reasons, we stand to benefit from starting that transition immediately and with enthusiasm.
When you consider all the factors, coal costs more than people think. That cost includes deaths from air pollution, the destruction wrought by coal mining, the risks being imposed on future generations by greenhouse gas emissions, and more. These costs do not appear on utility bills or on the financial reports of coal companies, but they do have a concrete impact on real human lives and the integrity of natural systems.
In short, if we want a planet that remains hospitable to human beings, we need to bury coal. At the same time, we can benefit in many ways from doing that. The purpose of this site is to help that happen.
Most of the information on this page is summarized in this five minute video presentation.
The objections category contains posts that respond to the various counterarguments to the points above.
Last updated: 1 November 2010