Asking schools to dump fossil fuel stocks is misguided

From The Californian 

As a university professor for over 30 years, I can state unequivocally that campus rhetoric never produced one single kilowatt hour of electricity, never cooked one meal and never fueled one automobile.

The coal, natural gas and oil that do all these things provide 82 percent of our energy. Yet, organizers of “Global Divestment Day” held protests in February to demand that universities eliminate these life-giving fossil fuels from their financial holdings.

OK, let’s just say the protesters tried to hold rallies. Many “global warming” gatherings fizzled because it was too cold. Yale students cancelled their event due to freezing New England temperatures and the 30 Harvard protesters who did show up quickly went inside the Administration Building to keep warm.

Such fair-weather protesters are mostly rich by world standards, mostly elite and mostly wrong. Fossil fuels, especially coal, are the solution, not the problem.

Coal, for example, provides 40 percent of our electricity and is the lifeblood of modern society. Ironically, coal is also the only way we can meet the environmental goals trumpeted by those opposed to its use.

Why coal? Well, coal is the world’s fastest-growing energy source for a reason – it is abundant, widely distributed, affordable, versatile and increasingly obvious as the only scalable answer to improving not merely the human condition but the physical environment as well.

Clean coal technologies work and will continue to take the environmental lead in the 21st century. New pulverized coal combustion systems, utilizing super-critical technology, achieve higher efficiencies than conventional plants.

Globally, these advanced plants emit up to 40 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than the average currently installed coal plant. Importantly, these super-critical plants are precursors to the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage, which itself is recognized as absolutely necessary to meet the 80 percent standard of reduced CO2emissions the marchers hold so dear.

There is no substitute for coal. To replace the world’s coal power plants would require about 5,000 Hoover Dams or constructing a new nuclear power plant every four days for the next 25 years or adding over five million wind turbines – enough to stretch one million miles to the moon and back twice.

The anti-fossil fuel crowd likes to claim the moral high ground by comparing itself to the 1980’s divestment movement against racial apartheid in South Africa. But this time they are on the wrong side.

We are in the midst of what World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has called “Energy Apartheid” – a situation where almost half of the global population lacks adequate access to electricity and 1.3 billion have none at all. These billions live a bleak and grim life, drink dirty water, suffer debilitating diseases and die well before their time.

The plight of this vast multitude of the energy impoverished should echo across campus far louder than the hyperbole of the privileged protesters who drive, fly or send email anywhere they wish using power from fossil fuels.

Consider India, where at least 300 million people have no electricity and more than 700 million lack basic services like lighting and refrigeration.

Or take sub-Saharan Africa, a region with 900 million, but only enough energy to power one light bulb per person for just three hours a day.

Almost three billion people worldwide use primitive stoves to burn biomass – wood, charcoal and animal dung – releasing dense black soot into their homes and the environment. Annual deaths from this household air pollution exceed 4 million per year – one every eight seconds.

The gathering and burning of wood and other biomass leads to deforestation, erosion, land degradation and contaminated water supplies, all leading to a devastating impact on the same environment the protesters claim they will save by forbidding the foundation of contemporary human development – fossil fuels.

Frank Clemente is Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Pennsylvania State University and former director of the University’s Environmental Policy Center. Write to him at 19 Colonnade Way, Suite 117, PMB 192, State College, PA 16803

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