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Why Is Asia So Coal Crazy?

Simple: It's a cheap way to power manufacturing plants, according to a new study. And that bodes poorly for the environment.
A large excavator digging in a brown-coal mine. (Photo: claffra/Shutterstock)

A large excavator digging in a brown-coal mine. (Photo: claffra/Shutterstock)

Although burning coal is widely regarded as one of the dirtiest methods for producing electricity, it's also undergoing something of a global renaissance, which threatens to undo efforts to slow humanity's negative impacts on the climate. Researchers have highlighted a frustratingly simple explanation as to why coal is coming back: It's cheap, and that's exactly what newly industrializing nations need.

Worldwide, carbon emissions are rising at an increasingly fast clip, largely driven by economic growth in developing countries, but also a return in recent years to more carbon-intense energy production. "[C]oal has been particularly important," Jan Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob write today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Coal consumption not only has risen in line with a growing global economy but has outpaced the growth of total energy use."

Asian countries are continuing to use dirty sources of energy—coal in particular—even as their GDPs explode.

Knowing this, Steckel, Edenhofer, and Jakob wanted a more detailed picture of what's going on with carbon emissions. After first breaking down the sources of emissions into four component parts—population, per capita income, energy usage in proportion to gross domestic product, and carbon dioxide produced per unit of energy—the researchers were then able to look at each of those factor's contributions to emissions in regions around the world.

In Africa and the Middle East, the analysis showed, population growth drove much of the relatively large increases in carbon emissions. But Asia was an entirely different story: "Asia in particular has experienced high rates of emission growth triggered by high rates of economic growth and, in contrast to most other regions, a constant carbonization of the energy system," Steckel, Edenhofer, and Jakob write. In other words, Asian countries are continuing to use dirty sources of energy—coal in particular—even as their GDPs explode. (Carbon emissions in North America, Europe, and Australia have grown at relatively slow rates compared with other regions.)

Those findings led to a second question: Why are Asia and other regions turning to coal? Probing the relationship between the economy and coal, Steckel, Edenhofer, and Jakob found that fast-growing countries, poor countries, and countries with the lowest coal prices were more likely than others to increase their reliance on coal. This means developing economies appear to use coal simply because it costs less.

That's all pretty bad news for the environment. "Developing economies now account for such a large share of global energy use that the trend toward higher carbon intensity in these countries cancels out the effect of decreasing carbon intensities in industrialized countries," the researchers write, and "if current trends continue, ambitious mitigation targets likely will become infeasible."

Worse, current proposals to encourage developing countries to use less coal—by restricting the global coal supply, for example—don't make much sense politically. Instead, the team writes, reducing coal's impact may require addressing secondary concerns, like air pollution. After all, nobody liked breathing the air in 19th-century London—so why would they like it today?

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.