Why We Need to Move From Coal to Natural Gas

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg intends to adopt and implement a climate adaptation plan that will reduce the city's future exposure to climate-related threats such as Superstorm Sandy. At $19.5 billion covering 250 initiatives, it is one of the most ambitious plans being advanced and yet it is likely only a transition program with much greater investment expected before the end of the century.

When you couple the cost of adapting to climate change, likely to well exceed several trillion dollars for the United States alone, and a global cost that will be easily $10 trillion, we have a required economic investment that is without parallel.

At the same time, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the Northern Hemisphere exceeded 400 parts per million in May, furthering the probability of more violent and unpredictable weather, greater storm surges, greater impacts on agriculture, more heat advisories and more warnings to curtail energy consumption.

We can take action to partially mitigate these impacts. We can shift from coal to natural gas, which would reduce by 40 percent the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of electricity. The World Bank is taking some action. The World Bank Group is helping global clients identify alternatives to coal power as they move toward the development of sustainable energy. The World Bank has also decided to cease funding new coal power-generation projects except in rare cases where there are no feasible alternatives.

The World Bank is moving forward to provide power to almost 1.2 billion people on the globe who don't have access to power. Providing those people with power can improve their quality of life and it can be done in a way that will help mitigate the impact on our climate.

Studies commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force in 2000 and 2004 have reviewed and quantified the deaths and health effects attributed to fine particles emitted from power plants in the United States. A more recent report released by the American Lung Association, titled "Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants," suggested that the 400 coal-powered plants in the nation emit more hazardous material (386,000 tons) than any other industrial source. This has significant implications on human health; a recent report published by the New York Academy of Sciences suggests the health costs associated with respiratory illnesses connected to these emissions amount to $185 billion per year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants. This, however, does not address the issues associated with existing power plants.

We have a chance to reduce the impacts of emissions on both human health and human contributions to climate change by moving from coal to natural gas. The carbon footprint associated with coal can be reduced by as much as 40 percent with this conversion. This would be a step taken in the right direction.

The impacts of mountaintop mining of coal in Appalachia clearly exhibited at sites such as Kayford Mountain and the Coal River Valley sludge impoundment raises additional concerns. The effect of these operations on water quality and the quality of life of those living in this area needs to be addressed.

If we adopt the fuel-source conversion program, we have two related responsibilities: develop a job creation plan for those displaced from the coal mining industry and establish stronger regulations and guidance for the hydraulic fracturing industry. We must better control the level of methane being released from the current technology employed in hydraulic fracturing extraction of natural gas from shale deposits. We have the technology to minimize fugitive emissions of methane. We must implement the required real-time monitoring and control technology.

The movement from coal to natural gas should not be used as an excuse to slow the progress being made in shifting from fossil fuels to a renewable energy future. The future of our children and grandchildren is dependent upon continuing this momentum. Relying more on natural gas to power industry and our homes should be considered a bridge to a healthier and brighter future.