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    Coal, Developing Nations, and the Streisand Effect

    June 5, 2023 - Watts Up With That?



      A tweet thread by @DoombergT

      1/ The California Coastal Records Project was founded in 2002 to create and maintain a complete photographic record of the Golden State’s spectacular coastline. Its primary aims were to track coastal resource degradation and expose violations on the part of developers.

      2/ Led by a husband-and-wife duo – Kenneth Adelman, photographer, and Gabrielle Adelman, helicopter pilot – the effort captured more than 12,000 photographs, taken in 500-foot increments.

      3/ The project demonstrated the benefits of leveraging fast-developing internet technology to protect priceless natural beauty, and the couple received the 2004 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography from the Sierra Club for their work.

      4/ But not everybody was thrilled. Photograph #3,850 just happened to feature the sprawling estate of a world-famous singer, actress, philanthropist, and environmental activist. Barbra Streisand’s Malibu mansion was stunning in its opulence:

      5/ While we would be the last to criticize how somebody chooses to spend their money, for a person who had spent years evangelizing the need for other people to reduce their carbon emissions, the home did have a certain television-preacher-with-a-private-jet feel to it.

      6/ Although hardly anyone saw or even knew of the picture – it had only been downloaded a total of six times, two of which were by her attorneys – Streisand decided it was unacceptable that this image was floating around on the internet.

      7/ She demanded the Adelmans remove it from their posted collection. As a sign of her determination that nobody should see her home without her permission, Streisand sued the couple in 2003 for violating her privacy, demanding $50 million (!) in restitution.

      8/ The staggering hypocrisy of it all backfired spectacularly. The story went viral and tabloids the world over splashed images of the estate for countless millions to see. Thus, was born the “Streisand Effect,” defined as efforts to suppress that only serve to amplify.

      9/ We were reminded of this rather humorous affair while researching the impact the recent global energy crisis will likely have on the long-term demand for coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

      10/ In the name of reducing carbon emissions, governments across the Western hemisphere have worked to thwart the production of most forms of primary energy, ultimately culminating in the severe energy crisis that began in Europe in 2021.

      11/ In the years leading up to the emergency, much of Western Europe effectively ceased domestic exploration and production of natural gas while preemptively closing down perfectly operational nuclear power facilities.

      12/ In an ironic twist reminiscent of Streisand’s self-defeating parade of photograph #3,850, these actions will likely result in massively more coal being burned by the rest of the world than if Europe had simply left well enough alone.

      13/ We begin with Germany. When faced with the prospect of entering the winter of 2022-2023 with insufficient energy supplies, the country roamed the world searching for every BTU it could get its hands on, regardless of price, carbon footprint, or impact on the developing world.

      14/ In particular, Germany retreated to the coal mines with the speed and efficiency of the British evacuation of Dunkirk. According to the IEA, Germany’s “significant reversal” drove European coal consumption for power up 9% in 2022 to a total of 377 MT.

      15/ The country’s return to coal, paired with a historically mild winter, may have granted it a reprieve from catastrophe, but the unavoidable consequence of both the blunders that caused the energy crisis and the chosen solution to it will reverberate in developing nations.

      16/ Given their huge populations, relatively low economic development, and the universal desire for higher standards of living, the developing nations are where the world’s ability to control carbon emissions will ultimately be decided. The decision is in.

      17/ Among the countries most damaged by the energy crisis was Pakistan. The country of nearly a quarter-billion people was literally left in the dark when Europe scrambled to secure every carrier of LNG it could get its hands on. Blackouts and political turmoil followed swiftly.

      18/ In response, the country plans to quadruple its domestic coal-fired capacity, increasing coal’s share of its electricity mix from 2.3 GW currently to 10 GW in the medium term.

      19/ It’s a similar story in Indonesia, a country blessed with an abundance of domestic coal and many of the critical metals needed to produce electric vehicles. While it is more than happy to supply the world with the latter, it too will be burning copious amounts of the former.

      20/ The country recently broke ground on an industrial park that spans 40,000 acres. The site will become a hub for green manufacturing using the country’s vast mineral reserves. How will this green energy utopia be powered? With coal, of course.

      21/ Beyond the more than 500 million people living in Pakistan and Indonesia combined, other major developing nations are executing similar strategies, including the two most populous. Both China and India have announced major plans for increased use of coal.

      22/ Ignoring the path function of progress (and eschewing nuclear technology) coalesced into the very cause of coal’s dramatic global renaissance. All told, the world set a record for coal consumption in 2022 and looks set to do so again this year.

      23/ Faced with the choice between a guaranteed calamity today or increasing the risk of one in the distant future, the developing world watched what Germany did instead of listening to what it said, and is now acting accordingly.

      24/ Last we checked, there are roughly two orders of magnitude more people in the bottom 99% than in the top 1%, and those vast populations will pursue the just and innately human endeavor to improve their quality of life.

      25/ If we don’t understand why coal is valuable, we have no hope of beating our addiction to it. Coal is cheap, reliable, and easy to store for indefinite periods. Replacements that fail across these dimensions have no hope of decreasing global demand for it.

      @DoombergT is an excellent Twitter follow and his substack is worth checking out.

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