Without China's Coal Burning The Hottest Decade On Record Would've Been Even Hotter


Powdered coal storage area at a Beijing power plant, photo: J W/Creative Commons

According to NASA data, the past decade was the hottest ten years on record, but it would have likely been even hotter if it weren't for air pollution from China's rapid expansion of coal burning. That's the take away from a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences--the part about warming halting since 1998 is a red herring, as Climate Progress points out.Boston University's Robert Kaufmann and team looked into the climate skeptic argument about warming pausing from 1998-2008 and interestingly found that in the middle of that time frame China's coal use doubled (from 2002-2007)--and that since 2007 China's coal use has increased a further 30%. That increase in coal-fired electricity not only emitted a massive amount of carbon dioxide, it also emitted a huge amount of particulate pollution.

As TreeHugger has written about many times, black soot pollution is increasingly acknowledged large contributor to warming, as a well as glacier melting in the Himalayas. But coal burning also emits sulphur into the atmosphere, which has a cooling effect as it reflects solar radiation. It's these emissions that ultimately masked part of the warming that would have taken place, just based on the greenhouse gas emissions from all the additional coal burning.

Two very different accounts of the study: BBC News and Climate Progress.

The thing to remember (since you're now probably going to be confronted with some skeptical uncle about all this) is that any masking of warming caused by increases in sulphur emissions from coal is very much short-lived compared to the long-term warming caused by the carbon emissions of burning coal. The CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very, very long time causing warming, while the particulate emissions (both the black carbon and sulphur) fall out comparatively quickly.

The characterization of this by The Independent is good: "China's power stations generate 'future spike' in global warming".

No matter how you try to spin it, coal is not compatible with either slowing or preventing climate change or with protecting both the local and global environment.

More on Global Climate Change
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Reducing Black Carbon Soot Would Slash Arctic Warming Two-Thirds by 2030, Cut Temp Rise by 0.5C

Tags: China | Coal | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science