Let the Alleghenies be in museums

  • The sooner we marshal human endeavours to delink economic systems from carbon burning, the better
The shift from coal and diesel to electricity, wind turbines and natural gas has changed many countries’ contribution to the global greenhouse gas budget

May 2, 2017-I rode my first bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai in 2015. Hurtling towards Shanghai at 300 km/hour, I went into a reverie of my train journeys as an engineering student at Rourkela of India during the 1970s, when steam locomotives were still used to haul carriages. I remember enjoying the journey and admiring the engineering marvel of the moving locomotives.

In 2002, I had an opportunity to see the Allegheny, an enormous steam locomotive at the Henry Ford Museum of Michigan, US. It was much bigger than the locomotives of India that I had grown up with. Named after the Allegheny Mountain of the Appalachian Range, the train engine was 125 feet long, 11 feet wide and 16 feet tall; it could pull 160 freight cars each with 60 tons of coal. As many as 60 locomotives were manufactured from 1941 and 1948, and since no shovelling could meet its appetite for coal, a screw was installed to continuously feed coal into its furnace.

Shift in energy use

The Alleghenies hauled coal from the mines of Kentucky and West Virginia to the more economically prosperous areas of the US. During the Second World War, they were also used to transport troops. After being used for a decade, the use of Alleghanies was discontinued in 1952 in the face of steep competition from cheaper, diesel run trains. All locomotives, except for two, were turned into scraps. Today, one is displayed in the Henry Ford Museum and the other in the Railroad Museum in Maryland, US.

The coal was used to produce electricity to meet energy needs for manufacturing, cement production and other purposes. In 1950, coal plants accounted for 46 percent of the electricity produced in the US. This figure dropped to 33 percent in 2015 largely due to a shift towards natural gas and renewables.

In China today, electricity used for running the bullet trains comes from a mix of coal, thermal and natural gas, hydro, wind and nuclear plants. The share of coal in this mix is about 56 percent. Presently in the Netherlands, renewable energy generated by wind turbines fully powers the trains that run in the country.

The shift from coal and diesel to electricity and natural gas has changed many countries’ contribution to the global greenhouse gas budget. Though historically the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, today the US occupies the second position while China is the frontrunner. Netherlands is 25th on the list and Nepal is among the smallest producers of greenhouse gases.

Increasing hazards

The British physicist John Tyndal discovered the greenhouse gas effect in 1859 while the second industrial revolution was underway in the West. He showed that molecules of gases like carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour absorb more heat compared to oxygen and nitrogen. Oxygen and nitrogen, however, allow some energy to pass through. Prior to the first industrial revolution, for every million molecules in the atmosphere, 280 molecules were primary heat trapping carbon dioxide (in parts per million or ppm).

Today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are 409 carbon dioxide molecules for every million molecules. The industrialised West produced most of this additional 129 ppm in the last 250 years. During this period, burning of coal and other fossil fuels continued, while deforestation, livestock farming, use of synthetic fertilisers, industrial processes and solid wastes also contributed to the greenhouse gas effects.

Because today’s atmosphere has more carbon dioxide molecules than in the 1770s, more heat is trapped, and the average global temperature is 1C higher than it was in that era. The days and nights are hotter than in the past. Instances of too much and too little rainfall have become more frequent. Many weather events like droughts, storms and rainfall are more extreme than in the past. Vulnerable countries are highly affected by these changes; these are countries who had very minimal roles in the production of greenhouse gas emissions to begin with.

Need for stability

In 1992, global efforts began under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a certain level and prevent dangerous, human-induced interference with the climate system. It aimed to do so within a timeframe that would allow ecosystems to adapt, ensure human food production is not threatened, and enable economic development to proceed sustainably. Almost 25 years later, in 2015, parties to the UNFCCC committed to the Paris Agreement; they agreed to keep the global average temperature rise well below 2C against the pre-industrial levels, and to further pursue efforts to keep the temperature increase below 1.5C. Achieving this objective requires drastic reductions in the burning of fossil fuels and a decarbonising of our present development pathway. Unfortunately, this target remains difficult to achieve as our burning of fossil fuel, including coal, continues unabated.

The story of the Allegheny is relevant here. This feat of technology at that time was quickly made obsolete by the availability of a cheaper alternative—diesel. Many coal-based enterprises could not compete economically, and the region of the US served by the Alleghenies began to decline, earning the sobriquet of ‘Rust Belt’ by the 1980s. Many coal-based jobs were lost. With increased automation, machines also began to extract coal dirt more efficiently, thus performing the tasks of miners and displacing them. The gigantic Bucket Wheel Machine of today, operated by a five person crew, chews about 6,780 cubic meters of coal dirt in a day, equivalent to the work of about 27,000 persons (assuming a person digs 0.25 cubic meters in a day).

The logic of creating direct coal-based jobs in places like the US is similar to the idea of displacing high-speed electric trains with Allegheny locomotives. That is simply not going to happen. Fossil fuel based enterprises have powered current global economic and political systems, but increased investments in coal is unlikely to generate the new jobs of tomorrow. Physicist Stephen Hawking reminds us, “automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle class.” A policy focused on bringing coal back may make a few coal corporations richer, but it will create more disadvantages by perpetuating prevailing economic inequalities, increasing emissions of greenhouse gases and accelerate the 20C average temperature rise. Crossing this threshold will result in severe social and political consequences.

We must be more creative in addressing these problems of the 21st century. The sooner we marshal human endeavours to delink current economic systems from carbon burning, the better. Many cities, local governments, businesses, communities and citizens who are already working towards a climate change resilient future give us hope. In such a future, people everywhere need decent jobs and income, satisfaction and a sense of belonging and identity. The remaining Allegheny locomotives are good where they are, in the museums.

Dixit is Executive Director at ISET-Nepal

Published: 02-05-2017 08:06

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