What’s the biggest dirty energy source of all?

October 5, 2012 | 4:00 pm | , Solutions Analyst

Coal Power Plant
© 2008 peggydavis66/Flickr cc by sa nd 2.0

We know that human activities are causing the climate crisis. But what kinds of activities do we mean — and which are the most important? The answer gets a bit more complicated.

There are several manmade sources of the carbon pollution that’s warming our climate, from deforestation to animal agriculture. But let’s clear up one thing right away: Dirty energy, the pollution from fossil fuels, is the single the biggest contributor to climate change. And the biggest dirty energy source is coal.

If this sounds pretty strong, it’s because the science supports this unequivocally. Coal accounted for 45% of global, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 and is the world’s leading source of energy-related carbon pollution. Within the U.S., coal accounts for 46% of electricity generation, and — because it is the most carbon-rich of all fuel types — 79% of total U.S. carbon pollution from the energy sector.

Besides warming up the planet, coal also has several other negative impacts on humans. For one thing, it’s bad for our health. Pollution from coal affects all our major organ systems and contribute to four of the leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory disease (PDF). Other associated problems are destructive mountaintop removal mining of coal and the disposal of hazardous coal ash.

But we still have to keep the lights on, right? Yes, but coal is really a 19th-century fossil fuel, and it’s clean energy that’s moving us into the future. In recognition of the need to reduce our reliance on coal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants. These standards would virtually ensure that no new coal power plant gets built in the U.S., unless it uses advanced technology to reduce carbon pollution from coal. It has proved to be the most popular standard the EPA has ever introduced, with a record-breaking number of supportive public comments. (A big thanks to readers like you who took the time to let the EPA know you support these historic standards!)

We know that the shift from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy is not going to happen overnight, and we’re all going to need time to make this adjustment. But the bottom line is that coal is no longer an appropriate way to power our society, and we need to keep doing all that we can to phase out this single biggest contributor to global climate change.