David G. Victor and Richard K. Morse in the Boston Review:
All fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when burned, but the real heart of the warming problem is coal. Emissions from coal are growing faster than from any other fossil fuel. Beyond greenhouse-gas pollution, coal is linked to a host of other environmental troubles such as local air pollution, which is why a powerful coalition of environmentalists in the richest and greenest countries is rallying to stop coal. Mired in opposition, barely any new coal plants are being built anywhere in the industrialized world. Coal, it may seem, is on the precipice.
Yet coal remains indispensable. No other fuel matches its promise of cheap and abundant energy for development. About half the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal. Germany, the anchor of old Europe’s economy, is a coal country. Poland, the heart of new Europe, gets 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The fast-growing economies of Asia, in particular China and India, are all coal-fired. Indeed, while the outlook for coal consumption in the industrialized world is flat, soaring Asian growth is expected nearly to double world consumption by 2030.
The central task of any serious (and politically viable) global-warming policy, then, is to reconcile these diverging patterns.