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Debating a 'Clean Coal' Future

Introduction

Coal is a vital energy source for many countries, and its use is on the rise in some of the fastest-growing developing states. Yet burning coal produces significant amounts of the greenhouse gas emissions believed responsible for accelerating global climate change. Coal use thus poses some of the most vexing questions for policymakers concerned about taking swift action to mitigate climate change. Some experts say the world's two largest consumers of coal--China and the United States--must find common cause in reducing its harmful environmental effects. Many are hopeful about the potential of carbon capture and storage, but that technology is still years away from being proven commercially and environmentally viable.

Despite increasing calls for cleaner energy, coal remains in wide use because it is cheap, abundant, and reliable.

Where Coal Is Still King

Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of global electricity generation as well as 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It is present in seventy nations, with the United States, Russia, and China possessing the largest reserves (PDF). Coal produces a varied spectrum of energy and pollutants depending on its quality--ranging from low-quality lignite to pure coal. The U.S. government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects modest increases in coal use for most of the world by 2030 but significant increases in Asia, particularly in China, where coal power generation is expected to more than double between now and 2030. Though China and India are pursuing other forms of energy, both possess large reserves of coal, making it a natural choice to fuel their rapid growth and acute energy needs. Analysis by CFR Senior Fellow David Victor shows coal is currently the cheapest way for China to generate power (PDF), with hydropower a close second.

China is the largest...

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