Don’t get lessons on the history of coal from Slate

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If you do not know how something began, you will probably not know how it will end. This axiom, which I’ve just invented, may or not be true, but it possibly has some merits. Take this piece in Slate confidently telling us that the age of coal is now over. Coal, as anyone with knowledge of its history, is a rather resilient form of energy. Every time people write it off, it keeps coming back.

Everyone believed coal’s contribution to global energy will keep declining and declining. Then China came along and went on the biggest coal binge in history, and suddenly coal is making its biggest proportional contribution to global energy in over 30 years. And where China went, India can quickly follow. Do not predict coal’s death with any confidence.

But the author of the piece at Slate appears fairly unaware of the history of coal, for somehow this absolute howler slipped passed the editors:

One hundred sixty-five years after it was first discovered that there’s a lot of energy stored in those dirty black rocks, coal remains one of the world’s leading power sources.

This is a totally zany claim. Coal was discovered in 1850? This was 31 years after the death of James Watt, and 121 years after the death of Thomas Newcomen. It was also two centuries after England became the first country to get the majority of its energy from coal.

Things don’t get much better if you read the article linked to as evidence that we first discovered coal a century ago. According to it:

England, 1850:

Jolly old England was really the only game in town. The Industrial Revolution began here and was still in its infancy. The coal mines were horrible in every sense of the word, and accidents were frequent. Social progress was epitomized by the Mines Act, passed in 1842: It banned underground employment for boys and girls under the age of 10. Somehow, 164 years after this point in history, coal is still one of the top energy sources on planet Earth.

But the amount of CO2 England was emitting was still tiny, about as much as comes from present-day Uzbekistan.

This is just not true. Britain was not emitting “tiny” amounts of CO2 in 1850. This should be obvious from the comparison with Uzbekistan, a country of 30 million people. Uzbekistan’s current per-capita CO2 emissions are around 4 tonnes per-capita. Britain’s total population was around 22 million in 1850. So, given the information provided by Slate Britain’s apparently “tiny” emissions in 1850 worked out at over 5 tonnes of CO2 per-capita. This is higher than in present day France.

We can be more accurate using historical estimates from CDIAC, This data indicates that Britain’s CO2 emissions were around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 in 1850.

So, instead of being discovered in 1850 coal was already being burned at a very high level in England. In fact, as I’ve written before, Britain’s per-capita coal production in the 1850s was as high as it is in China today.

Recommended reading

For a good history of the early use of coal in England read E.A. Wrigley’s Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.