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From Bagels to Coal Fires: An Unorthodox Economist Keeps Pushing for Change

You may remember Paul Feldman as the Bagel Man we wrote about in Freakonomics. You may also remember that he was an economist before he got into bagels, with an interest in agricultural, medical, and military issues.

He recently wrote to us about an environmental issue he’s been looking into: the abundance of underground coal fires in abandoned mines and other places that not only waste coal but contribute mightily to worldwide carbon dioxide emissions. According to Paul’s research — take a look at Web sites like this one, this one, and this one — underground fires in China alone contribute as much CO2 to the atmosphere each year as all the cars and light trucks in the U.S. (We touched on the issue of coal mining fatalities in the U.S. and China in a recent column about nuclear energy, but didn’t include this other important byproduct of widespread coal use.)

We asked Paul to write up a guest blog on the subject, which you’ll find below. Once you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand a bit better why this was the guy who could figure out how to make a handsome living by selling bagels on an honor system. It is a call to arms that understands the political and economic realities of the climate change debate. Here’s hoping that someone answers Paul’s call.

By Paul Feldman

There is growing acceptance that the earth’s climate is changing, and that action is needed to control the production of greenhouse gases. There is no consensus, however, on what should be done. Some proposals focus on using carbon taxes or carbon cap-and-trade arrangements to regulate industrial emitters. Other proposals are directed at re-designing individual emitters such as cars and trucks.

Such proposals are not likely to be accepted unless they are adopted worldwide. No nation wants to pay for emissions reductions while others continue to increase their emissions. Gaining international acceptance of broad policy actions, however, is a time-consuming and contentious process. For example, the Law of the Sea Treaty that is now being considered by the Bush Administration has been in the works since 1982, and it still fails to satisfy many parties to the negotiations. And the international treaty on climate change produced by the United Nations in 1992 and followed by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 still lacks worldwide acceptance, because it excludes several of the most important emitters of greenhouse gases.

But while a worldwide policy to limit greenhouse gases will be difficult to achieve, not all interim steps to reduce emissions have to be contentious. One example concerns an issue that has escaped front-page attention: extinguishing underground coal fires that have been burning freely and putting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air for decades. Underground coal fires in China alone produce as much carbon dioxide annually as all the cars and light trucks in the United States. Fires in other countries, including the United States, are smaller but still add significantly to the total burden.

Although extinguishing these fires would be costly, it would reduce carbon emissions without the major disruptions to individual national economies mentioned above. And it would further benefit nations by eliminating the loss of their coal fields. As such, it might be possible to work out some international cost-sharing arrangement to attack those fires now, without waiting for all nations to agree on a wide-ranging treaty to limit carbon dioxide emissions.