In a contradiction that scientists, skeptics, businesses, governments and the media never saw coming, coal emissions may actually be both contributing to global warming and reducing it. While this may seem like an oxymoron, it turns out that while excess carbon dioxide from coal emissions creates a warming effect in our atmosphere, the sulfur emitted by coal actually cools the atmosphere.
While scientists have argued that carbon dioxide emissions will lead to a warming trend, the facts and figures aren’t holding true to their predictions. 2005 and 2010 have been two of the hottest years on record; however, there has been no steady rise in global temperatures between 1998 and 2008 to warrant a warming trend.
Critics to the global warming argument have used this lack of evidence to argue that human emissions are not the cause of global warming.
Robert Kaufmann, a professor at Boston University, decided to conduct a study into the matter after a global warming skeptic approached him about the lack of evidence. "Nothing that I had read that other people have done gave me a quick answer to explain that seeming contradiction, because I knew that carbon dioxide concentrations have risen," Kaufman says.
His study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and points to coal as the culprit/savior in the seeming contradiction. In the past decade, coal burning has increased dramatically, especially in China, which has been constructing coal-burning energy plants at breakneck speed. China reportedly has a new coal plant coming online every week on average. Burning coal emits sulfur, which, when abundant in the atmosphere, prevents the sun’s rays from reaching the Earth.
A similar trend occurred in the post-World War II era, as a worldwide economic boom saw the expansion of coal burning energy generation internationally. An increase in greenhouse gas emissions, like sulfur, resulted in a relative cooling. Then, in the 1970s, developed nations took steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat damage to the ozone layer. The result was a spike in global warming as sulfur levels in the atmosphere subsided.
But with international coal consumption rising by 26 percent between 2003 and 2007—China accounting for more than three quarters of the increase—atmospheric sulfur content is apparently at cooling levels again. So while coal is global warming’s biggest culprit, it may also be its biggest savior.
Does this mean that we should forget about curbing coal emissions, since they apparently balance out the warming and cooling effect of the atmosphere? Is rampant global warming policy all for naught? Can we have our cake and eat it too? As Kaufmann explains, it's like saying “We’ll pick our poison. You could certainly make that argument, but I don't think many people would view that as a very satisfactory solution, especially if it meant living in a very polluted atmosphere like in China."
The study, carried out in collaboration with Michael Mann, the United Nations’ scientific panel member and global warming activist, also cited lowered solar activity and the natural El Nino and La Nina effects of ocean patterns as other possible contributors to the lack in warming.
By. John Shimkus of Energy Digital