Clean coal? Waiting to exhale - and inhale, and exhale, and inhale...

Take a celebratory breath if you don’t live in the Iranian city of Ahwaz or the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. According to the World Health Organization’s survey of world air pollution, the air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator has so many particles in it that you could collect them in a salt shaker. If you plan to travel to either place, you might want to brown-bag plenty of Visine and surgical masks.

The easiest headline out of that WHO survey was to name the cities with the dirtiest air, the way I just did in the previous paragraph. But the media missed the bigger story in the survey: coal burning in India and China, why it’s going to get worse, and where technology might succeed and fail in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The world’s two largest countries and largest emerging economies account for 43 of the top 100 most polluted cities in the WHO survey – 24 for India and 19 for China. The survey ranked cities on the amount of particulates in their air. The biggest single source of airborne particulates is coal-fired power plants, the top source of greenhouse gases. Ahwaz and Ulan Bator may be the most obvious goats on the list, but India’s and China’s growth potential make them the much more serious pollution concern. India approved 173 new coal-fired power plants last year alone, even as complaints about air quality and health problems near coal facilities turn into open protests. As early as 2006, environmental advocates were documenting the damage that emissions from China’s coal-burning power plants were doing to environments thousands of miles away.

A common response is to blame loose environmental regulations and obsolete technology for the high pollutant levels coming from Chinese and Indian coal plants. If they’d adopt higher standards, they wouldn’t be dumping as much carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air. But at least in China’s case, that isn’t true. A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology documented in 2008 that China’s new coal-fired plants were built to Western standards and employ the latest scrubber technology for removing pollutants. The problem is that scrubbers aren’t enough when a country is burning low-quality coal, as China does. In a surprisingly frank assessment from a quasi-state-controlled newspaper, China Daily reported that more than 71 percent of Chinese coal-fired power plants have scrubbers, yet the country isn’t making much progress toward cleaner air. The Economist magazine was even blunter this past January: “The power stations frantically being built in China to feed the country’s new electricity grid will be relatively efficient and thus less polluting than older coal plants around the world. But that is a rather low bar. Coal is the filthiest fossil fuel and is cheap only because its dirtiness isn’t included in the bill.”

What’s happening in China and India underscores the fact that neither scrubbers nor any other currently available technology can make coal a wholly clean energy source. The smart money in curbing coal plant emissions shouldn’t be chasing better coal-burning technology. It should be focused on lowering the demand for electricity so we don’t have to burn as much coal. Compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances are an acceptable start, but they’re a bare fraction of what needs to happen to curb the demand for coal-fired electricity. Until the full weight of the industrial and scientific communities gets behind energy efficiency in everything that uses an electric current, the dirty air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator will be symbols of a problem that extends far beyond the city lines.

 

Best green TV ads of the past decade

Looking for a quick yet enriching lunch-hour diversion? Check out these riveting eco-themed commercials chosen as the past decade’s “12 most thought-provoking” by Mother Nature Network, the self-described “green CNN”).

A few observations after viewing the clean dozen:

  • Polar bears are the go-to animal for poignancy (my favorite of the bunch).
  • We used to be very earnest.
  • We lightened up.
  • We conflated consumerism and environmentalism (buy a Leaf, Prius or Audi, and you’re saving the world!)
  • Irony is okay, if you sprinkle it with touchy-feely moments.
  • Peeing in the shower is green. You don’t say.

 

 

 

There's a great green business in bottled water

The cure for the runaway use of plastic water bottles has been right in front of my face every Tuesday night. It’s the beer tap in my local bar. With a few tweaks and some creative marketing, the tap could be the end of the perpetual stream of plastic bottles clogging landfills and waterways. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I squawked about back in 2009.)

Bottled water sales were supposed to have peaked – or “tapped out” in the words of the Washington Post – in 2009. That was good news for us crunchoid types who think bottled water is an over-used indulgence that consumes too much plastic and landfill space. The good times lasted a year. Despite public awareness campaigns by groups like banthebottle.com, bottled water sales rebounded in 2010. The spring (no pun intended) 2011 edition of the bottled water industry’s trade magazine, the Bottled Water Reporter, announced that the industry was on the rebound and poised for growth in the U.S. and worldwide. And remember, the backdrop to this resurgence is that we didn’t make much of a dent in our 167-bottle-per-person-per-year habit when sales slowed in 2009, we just temporarily curbed its growth.

I’m on record in this space a few years back as having no particular quarrel with plastic. I just think we use too much plastic in the U.S., where clean tap water is the rule rather than the exception. Why burn energy to pump crude out of the ground, burn more to refine it into petrochemicals, then more to turn it into single-serve plastic water bottles? There are better ways, and I’m offering one to the bottled water and convenience store industries royalty-free:

Step One – Convenience stores, remove the cooler space currently devoted to bottled water.
Step Two – In its place, install a cold tap system with at least three or four spigots. One of them should always be local tap water.
Step Three – Invite water companies to rent a tap, install a branded handle, and hook it up to their own brand of water.
Step Four – Sell refills of branded water for a quarter a whack and give the local tap water away for free. Customers have to fill reusable water bottles. If they don’t bring them in, they can get one for a deposit – a hefty enough sum to encourage them to hold onto the bottle or bring it back, but not enough to scare them away.

There’s something in this for the stores and the water companies. The stores can devote less space to water sales and don’t have to re-stock single-serve bottles. They can brand their water bottles with their own logos and colors as promotional items. The water companies can bulk-package their product, which is cheaper and more environmentally sound. That should reduce the amount of static they get from the anti-bottle lobby.

I will admit there are a few holes in the plan that I haven’t yet figured out. How much does it cost to maintain a steady supply of clean water bottles, for example? Truth be told, I’d rather we all just drank local tap water and forgot about water that has to be pumped out of the ground (with electricity) packaged (in plastic) and transported (burning diesel fuel). But designer water has caught on, so why not use free market economic principles to accomplish something for the environment?

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