Soaring Global Coal Use Is Obliterating Emission Reductions Achieved in the U.S. Since 2005
By Robert Bryce
The global energy crisis has resulted in a spasm of energy realism and plain talk. Last week, Vaclav Bartuška, the Czech Ambassador-at-Large for energy security, told a group of reporters that “If there is a gas cut out this winter, we will burn anything we can to keep our people warm and to make electricity.”
Bartuška said aloud what has become obvious over the past few months: climate change concerns are taking a backseat to economic considerations. Indeed, all around the world, countries are turning back to coal to produce power and the resulting emissions from increasing coal use will obliterate all of the emissions reductions that have been achieved in the United States over the past decade and a half.
Here are the numbers. In April, China announced it will increase coal output by 300 million tons this year. In May, India said it aims to increase domestic coal production by more than 400 million tonsby the end of next year. According to the Energy Information Administration, burning a ton of coal releases about 2 tons of carbon dioxide. Thus, the 700 million tons per year of new coal consumption in China and India will result in an additional 1.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to BP, that’s about the same volume of emission reductions that were achieved in the U.S. between 2005 and 2020.
The surge in coal use in China and India is only part of the story. Russia has slashed or stopped the flow of natural gas into several European countries via the Nordstream 1 pipeline. In response, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced last week that his government is “taking additional measures to reduce gas consumption,” including a big increase in the use of coal-fired power plants. Habeck, who is a member of the Green party, said the decision to burn more coal was “necessary” to lower gas usage and that the move was “bitter.”
At about the same time that Germany announced it was reviving its coal-fired capacity, the Netherlands announced it would do the same. Coal plants in the country had been restricted to 35% of their capacity as Holland pushed to cut emissions and use more renewables. Nevertheless, Dutch climate and energy minister Rob Jetten announced that the “cabinet has decided to immediately withdraw the restriction on production for coal-fired power stations” until 2024.
Austria, which has been getting 80% of its gas supplies from Russia, announced on June 19, that it was going to convert a gas-fired power plant to burn coal. According to Reuters, the move was decided by a “crisis cabinet” led by the country’s chancellor. Furthermore, on June 9, Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said his country needs to ramp up its domestic coal production to reduce energy costs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We will introduce a program of increased coal extraction in Poland’s collieries,” Morawiecki said. According to the Associated Press, the Polish government wants to reduce energy prices before the start of winter and return them to levels that prevailed before the war.
While it can’t be known yet the total amount of coal that these European countries will be burning, any incremental use of coal will be added on top of the huge increases now underway in India and China, and therefore further increase global emissions and offset any reductions being achieved in the United States.
The surging use of coal around the world shows, once again, that the Iron Law of Electricity remains in force. That law says that people, businesses, and governments will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need. The Iron Law matters because the electricity sector is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions. And politicians from China to the Czech Republic are going to do everything they can, including “burning anything” they can find, to avoid blackouts.
The punchline here is clear: Although the U.S. has been leading the world in cutting its greenhouse gas emissions – in fact, no other country even comes close in terms of absolute reductions — other countries are not following suit. Furthermore, I’m not arguing that we should quit trying to reduce our emissions. What I am saying is that we must be realistic about the scale and cost of our emissions-reduction efforts and the extent to which those efforts are making a difference in the global scheme.
I’ll end by repeating the same point I have been making for more than 12 years: renewable energy cannot, will not, be able to meet soaring global energy demand. If the countries of the world are serious about reducing coal use and the emissions that come from burning that carbon-heavy fuel, they need to get serious about N2N: natural gas to nuclear. Both sources are low-carbon, relatively low-cost, scalable, and deployable.
The good news is that the U.S. is well-positioned to lead on both natural gas (via LNG exports) and in the development and deployment of the next generation of nuclear reactors. But if the U.S. is going to lead on N2N, we will need long-term support from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. That seems like a tall order given the deep political divides in Washington. But the choice is clear. N2N is the best no-regrets policy for reducing global coal use. The Biden administration and their counterparts on the Republican side of the aisle need to work together to make it happen.
Robert Bryce is the host of the Power Hungry Podcast, executive producer of the documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, and the author of six books, including most recently, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations. Follow him on Twitter: @pwrhungry