Sun, Wind, and the End of Coal
We may well call it black diamonds. Every basket is power
and civilization. Coal is a portable climate. It carries the
heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and
it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is
wanted. Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of
mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw
two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat,
to make Canada as warm as Calcutta, and with its com-
fort brings its industrial power.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
If this was a murder mystery, coal would be the villain hidden in plain sight.
A century ago coal powered the trains and ships that ushered in the
modern age. Today, it still plays an outsized role in fueling the electricity
plants on a continent whose people are literally coming out of the darkness—
out of the enforced darkness of poverty, where streets are dim and students
study by a kerosene light—into our electricity-driven age.
Coal is plentiful and cheap: coal-fired electricity powers eight of every
ten light bulbs in China, a country that burns almost half the coal used
worldwide every year.1 Coal is an ever-ready servant, abundant and easy to
use, and a steady and reliable producer of power.
Coal is also dangerous: it is the single largest cause of the air pollution
that prematurely kills more than 1.2 million people each year in China alone,
in addition to the more than 1,000 coal miners who perish in accidents in a
typical year. Coal is also responsible for worsening climate change, account-
ing for more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.2