London / New York: Jim Hansen, a US climate scientist who in 1981 warned that the planet was heating faster than expected, repeated in an interview his call for phasing out coal-fired power plants as crucial to avoid destructive global warming.
Burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it remains for decades, trapping the sun’s energy and helping warm the planet. The gas now comprises about 385 of every million molecules of the atmosphere, more than the level of 350 that Hansen considers perilous, he said in a 5 September interview in London after testifying at a trial.
“The dangerous level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is so low that we’re going to have to phase out existing coal” generation, said Hansen, who heads the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Six Greenpeace volunteers began trial last week in the UK for trying to paint a global warming slogan on a smokestack near London, arguing the attack was necessary to prevent even greater harm to the environment. They were protesting plans by the plant’s owner, EON AG, Germany’s largest utility, to replace an existing power station.
The demonstrators called Hansen, whose scientific opinions are not universally shared, to testify on their behalf.
Unbridled coal combustion may almost double the atmospheric carbon dioxide content and “head us toward an ice-free planet”, Hansen said in the interview. Every hour, fossil fuel combustion generates 3.5 million tonnes of emissions worldwide, helping create a warming effect that already affects the climate, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in a 6 June report.
Coal could still be used to generate electricity if carbon dioxide emissions are captured and stored underground, a technique known as carbon sequestration, Hansen said. Research needed to introduce carbon capture on a large scale could cost $20 billion (Rs89,800 crore) and may take 15 years to develop.
“We have already passed the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we can afford to leave in the air in the long run,” Hansen said earlier. Carbon can be reduced below “the dangerous level this century, but only if, over the next few decades, we phase out coal plants that do not sequester their carbon dioxide”.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and the Republican candidate John McCain support government spending on ways to make electricity from coal cleaner, said Christine Tezak, an energy analyst for Washington-based Stanford Group Co. Obama, a US senator from Illinois, wants the US energy department, with private partners, to build five coal generators that capture carbon dioxide, Tezak had said in an August report. McCain wants the government to spend $2 billion a year through 2024 for clean projects.
Hansen said Obama and McCain are likely to make more progress on tackling climate change than President George W. Bush.