Coal is dead, no mat­ter what Trump has to say about it

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - WORLD AF­FAIRS

“MY AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TION IS PUTTING an end to the war on coal,” said Don­ald Trump, sur­rounded by the usual gag­gle of of­fi­cials and (in this case) coal-min­ers, as he put his su­per-size sig­na­ture on the En­ergy In­de­pen­dence Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der. But coal is dy­ing as a ma­jor en­ergy source in the United States for rea­sons far be­yond the reach of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders.

“The min­ers are com­ing back,” Trump boasted at a rally in Ken­tucky last month, but no less an au­thor­ity than Robert Mur­ray, founder and CEO of Mur­ray En­ergy, the big­gest U.S. coal com­pany, promptly rained on his parade. “I sug­gested that (Trump) tem­per his ex­pec­ta­tions,” he said. “He can’t bring them back.”

Trump’s lat­est ex­ec­u­tive or­der is not just about coal, of course. It’s a frontal as­sault on all the Obama-era reg­u­la­tions that aimed at curb­ing cli­mate change. But while it will slow the de­cline in U.S. green­house gas emis­sions, it will not have a ma­jor im­pact on global emis­sions.

That is partly be­cause the U.S. ac­counts for only 16 per cent of global emis­sions. Com­pared to China’s 29 per cent, it doesn’t mat­ter all that much, and China re­mains com­mit­ted to big cuts.

In Jan­uary, China scrapped plans for 104 new coal-fired power plants, and it in­tends to in­vest $361 bil­lion (equal to half the U.S. de­fence bud­get) in re­new­able en­ergy be­tween now and 2020. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is spend­ing that kind of money be­cause it is rightly ter­ri­fied about what global warm­ing will do to China’s econ­omy and above all to its food sup­ply.

Like the In­di­ans, the Euro­peans, and pretty much ev­ery­body else, the Chi­nese re­main com­mit­ted to the cli­mate goals agreed to in Paris in De­cem­ber 2015 even though the United States has de­fected. Their own fu­tures de­pend on meet­ing those goals – and they know that the Amer­i­can de­fec­tion does not de­stroy all hope of suc­cess. Glob­ally speak­ing, it’s not that big a deal.

It would seem like a much big­ger deal, how­ever, if they were not con­fi­dent that Amer­i­can green­house gas emis­sions will con­tinue to de­cline un­der Trump, though not as fast as they would un­der a less ig­no­rant and less com­pro­mised ad­min­is­tra­tion. Coal pro­vides an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of why.

In 2009, when Barack Obama en­tered the White House, coal pro­vided 52 per cent of U.S. elec­tric­ity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 per cent, and the de­cline has lit­tle to do with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. First cheap gas from frack­ing un­der­cut the coal price, and then even so­lar power got cheaper than coal – so 411 coal-fired plants closed down, and more than fifty coal-min­ing com­pa­nies went bank­rupt.

Half the 765 re­main­ing big coal-fired plants in the United States were built be­fore 1972. Since the av­er­age age when Amer­i­can coal-fired plants are scrapped is 58 years, half of them will soon be gone no mat­ter what Trump does, and even he can­not make it eco­nom­i­cally at­trac­tive to build new ones. (Only nine per cent of Amer­i­can coal­fired plants were built in the past quar­ter-cen­tury.)

Coal is by far the most pol­lut­ing of the fos­sil fu­els, pro­duc­ing twice as much car­bon diox­ide as gas does for the same amount of en­ergy, but that alone wasn’t enough to turn the en­ergy in­dus­try against it. It’s the cost per kilo­watt-hour of elec­tric­ity that mat­ters, and coal has sim­ply been over­taken by cheaper forms of en­ergy.

Even in In­dia, the most heav­ily coal-de­pen­dent of the big economies and a coun­try with vast amounts of coal, so­lar en­ergy prices are now on a par with coal. Sheer in­er­tia means that In­dia will go on ex­pand­ing coal-fired gen­er­a­tion for a few more years, but its Na­tional Elec­tric­ity Plan projects no fur­ther in­crease in coal-based ca­pac­ity af­ter 2022. King Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good in­ten­tions to do the right thing for cli­mate safety any­more; just com­mon sense. From fuel ef­fi­ciency

in au­to­mo­biles to re­plac­ing coal-fired plants with nat­u­ral gas or so­lar ar­rays, sav­ing money goes handin-hand with cut­ting emis­sions. The econ­omy is not your en­emy; it’s your ally. So Trump won’t do nearly as much harm as peo­ple feared.

Pres­i­dent Obama promised last year to cut U.S. green­house gas emis­sions by about 26 per cent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 per cent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 per cent. The U.S. ac­counts for 16 per cent of global emis­sions, so do the math: 13 per cent of 16 per cent equals about two per cent of global emis­sions.

That’s what would be at stake over the next four years if Trump’s pres­i­dency stopped all the an­tic­i­pated re­duc­tions in green­house emis­sions that Obama based his prom­ise on – but it won’t. A lot of those emis­sion cuts are go­ing to hap­pen any­way, be­cause they just make eco­nomic sense. At a guess, around half of them.

So how much dam­age can Trump do to the global fight against cli­mate change over the next four years? He can keep global emis­sions about one per cent higher than they would have been if the United States had kept its prom­ise to the Paris con­fer­ence. And that’s all.

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