If we, as a society, are intent on burning coal to generate electricity, (and it seems we are), then we had better get serious about capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide emissions that result from coal combustion. Otherwise, we're cooked.
That, in a nutshell, is the message of this excellent Why Files article on the subject
. At the moment, the technology is still in its infancy, and while coal boosters are happy to pay lip service to the idea, it's far from certain that it can work on the scale needed to curtail climate catastrophe. As it stands, not a single large power plant is currently injecting its CO2 underground. And even when all the projects now on the drawing board are fully operational (the first US carbon capture-capable generating facility, FutureGen, is still at least five years from completion), they will only account for a tiny fraction of total emissions. And even then, there's no ironclad guarantee the CO2 won't escape, perhaps even catastrophically.
The technical challenges are only part of the equation here. Policy may pose as great an obstacle as leaders are reluctant to apply the pressure necessary to overcome inertia. As Howard Herzog of MIT's Laboratory for Energy explains, the financial motivation to get serious about the technology is still sorely lacking. "The economic incentives are not there to have this start happening sooner. It will probably take a price signal [a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or another mechanism to raise the cost of venting carbon dioxide] of $30 per ton of CO2. The chances of that happening in the United States before 10 years are not very high. So let's use that time to do some demonstrations, so we are ready to run."
Whether or not carbon sequestration proves workable remains to be seen, but we have to try. Says Martin Blunt of Imperial College London: "There is a growing realization that the world is facing a very serious problem, and you don't try to tackle a serious problem with only one technology. You try all the possible solutions, nuclear, renewable, efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and see which one works out. You will probably find that some of those solutions will be better than others, but until you have treated them all seriously, you will not know."