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World gets conflicting advice on advantages, dangers of burning coal

The world is being urged to use more coal but at the same time warned that unless use of fossil fuels is reduced dangerous climatic changes may occur: * The 16-nation World Coal Study (WOCOL) has concluded that coal production and use can triple over two decades to fill an increasing energy gap between what other sources realistically can be expected to supply and what the world will need. Indeed, the WOCOL report sees widespread economic decline unless nations exercise the coal option.

* The (US) National Academy of Sciences (NAS), meanwhile, has called for international agreement to reduce the use of fossil fuels (chiefly coal and oil) because of the belief that carbon dioxide released in burning them may affect the earth's climate in future years.

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Few things could better illustrate the perplexing choices involved in energy supply than the juxtaposition in time and theme of these two recommendations.

The NAS report -- prepared for presidential science adviser Frank Press -- deals with a vaguely defined climatic threat whose assessment depends on inadequate scientific theory and incomplete data. Many climatologists believe that the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO[2]), accumulating in the atmosphere could affect climate.But no one really knows what the effect will be.

Some studies suggest temperate zones might become a bit warmer and more moist , thus benefiting farming in developed countries. The subtropics, where many developing nations are located, might then be more arid, to the detriment of agriculture. As the NAS committee -- chaired by political economist Thomas C. Schelling of Harvard University, puts it, CO[2]-induced climatic change "might well tend to make the already poor still poorer and increase the difference between North and South, rich and poor, developed and developing."

Such conclusions are only as good as the assumptions underlying them. And given the present state of knowledge, these assumptions are scientifically debatable. Nevertheless, the issue is emotionally and politically sensitive enough for the NAS to warn it could increase tension between developed and developing nations. Hence its advice to cut back on fossil fuel use and push alternative energy sources, while "in the near term emphasis should be on [CO[2] ] research, with as low a political profile as possible."

WOCOL didn't ignore the CO[2] issue. It also called for serious research. But it dismissed the issue as a reason to hold back on coal development now because of the vagueness of the presumed climatic threat. It also warned that not even aggressive conservation or vigorous development of solar power or any other "alternative energy source" can close the energy gap in this century.

What is the public to think? Should the world embrace the coal option as its best energy "bridge to the future" as WOCOL urges? Or is there wisdom in the restraint urged by the NAS? What does seem clear is that development of coal will not be the straightforward economic-technical matter that the WOCOL report implies.