The True Cost of Coal Power

Posted on 18 March 2011 by dana1981

Due to its abundance and low market price, coal combustion is the largest source of energy production in the world, accounting for 40% of all electricity worldwide. In the USA it accounts for 45% of electricity generation, and approximately 75% in Australia.

Unfortunately, coal combustion is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions as well, accounting for 30% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions worldwide, and 72% of CO2 emissions from global power generation. In addition, non-power generation uses increase its contribution to global human CO2 emissions to a whopping 41% (as of 2005).

Coal Externalities

A major problem with coal is that its full costs are not reflected in its market price, and thus while we may seemingly purchase and burn coal cheaply, in reality we are paying a much higher cost in the long run, if we look at the big picture. Economists refer to the impacts on human and environmental health which are not reflected in the price of coal as “externalities”. Those who benefit from the seemingly cheap electricity don’t pay for these externalities directly, but the public eventually has to pay in the form of medical bills, environmental cleanups, etc.

In a new report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Epstein et al. (2011) do a full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, taking these externalities into account. Among the factors included in this analysis were:

  • government coal subsidies
  • increased illness and mortality due to mining pollution
  • climate change from greenhouse gas emissions
  • particulates causing air pollution
  • loss of biodiversity
  • cost to taxpayers of environmental monitoring and cleanup
  • decreased property values
  • infrastructure damages from mudslides resulting from mountaintop removal
  • infrastructure damage from mine blasting
  • impacts of acid rain resulting from coal combustion byproducts
  • water pollution

….(read more).

Global Climate Change
Environment Ethics
Environment Justice

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