Power and its pitch black heart

April 22, 2005

Barbara Freese, in this lightweight but very readable book, explains why coal that once powered the Industrial Revolution is now at the centre of the debate on global warming. While Europe has gradually, and often painfully, phased out this highly polluting fuel, China and the US, the two world superpowers and major coal producers, forge ahead with its use.

Freese traces the history of coal use in Britain, the US and China with colourful anecdotes and occasional insights. This is not an academic book, more light-green history. She covers a lot of ground: vignettes of coal use in medieval London and Friedrich Engels's Manchester; rip-roaring tales from the US of coal mining in 1800s Pennsylvania and the 1902 labour strike; stories of exploitation and disaster from the 11th century to the Cultural Revolution in China.

Running through this history is Freese's theme of the environmental damage caused by coal and our reluctance to do anything about it. Coal has for centuries heated our homes, powered our industries and made us rich, so why should we give it up? It is cheap, widely available and it is not running out.

Some nations, such as France, have given up mining coal, while others, such as Britain and Germany, have run down their once-mighty industries. They have instead, for political and economic reasons, opted for cleaner and more convenient energy sources - gas and oil - for industry and domestic use, and nuclear power for electricity generation. This shift away from coal has been driven partly by environmental factors. First, the public campaigns from the 1850s to improve air quality in cities by curbing coal smoke, then national legislation requiring cuts in sulphur dioxide emissions from power stations in the 1980s to stop "acid rain" damage, and most recently the desire to reduce the threat of global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

While the US has made great strides in improving air quality and reducing sulphur dioxide emissions, it is hostile to global attempts, such as the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Freese illustrates this hostility with discussion of the powerful political force of the US coal mining industry, which campaigns for President George W. Bush. She credits its successful campaign in 2000 in the previously Democratic coal mining state of West Virginia with delivering the state (and the presidential election) to Bush.

This is one of the better sections of the book, and it benefits from Freese's experiences as a US lawyer charged with enforcing state air pollution laws.

The book also benefits from her visits to Chinese coal mines and interviews with state officials. The Chinese attitude is that it has the right to increase its carbon dioxide emissions (now only one eighth per capita of the US) as it develops. As one official said to her: "When we are richer, we will take more responsibility."

Freese concludes that we need to head down a radical new path, not by regulation but by encouraging "an intensively competitive market that rewards innovation" and "would promote the rapid evolution of energy technologies". These carbon-free technologies are left largely unspecified, and the book closes with pious hopes that in the end we will figure it out if we use "market-based tools". This approach is typified by the rhetoric of the UK Government's 2003 energy White Paper, which Freese quotes with admiration.

Overall, this book is short on economic analysis and statistical data. It has copious notes and a large bibliography, but there are few references to recent journal articles. However, it would make good holiday reading.

Horace Herring is visiting research fellow, Open University.

Coal: A Human History

Author - Heinemann
Editor - Barbara Freese
Pages - 336
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 434 01333 1

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