Despite what you hear in the media, and from some politicians, electric power generation in America is not a major cause of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Not even close. Yet the affordability and reliability of electricity is under serious attack under the guise of reducing CO2 emissions from coal power plants.
The chart on this page is from David Gattie, of the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering and Center for International Trade and Security. According to Gattie, coal accounts for 40.2% of world CO2 emissions. (The rest of CO2 emissions come from other fossil fuels – oil, gas, etc.) Of that, China is responsible for the most coal-based CO2 emissions. And their share is growing rapidly, as China continues to build coal power plants (while the U.S. shuts down coal power plants).
Coal power in the U.S. accounts for less than 3% of global CO2 emissions! Completely eliminate that 3% (or, in other words, eliminate all coal power plants in the U.S.) and you will see practically no CO2 environmental benefit.
What you will see, however: Higher electricity prices and more blackouts as we trade a stable source of electricity for intermittent and less reliable forms of power generation.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
- US CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use have decreased 853 million metric tons from 2005 -2019, a 14% reduction
- US electric power sector CO2 emissions have decreased 798 million metric tons from 2005 – 2019, a 33% reduction, which accounts for 93% of total US emission reductions during this time.
- Meanwhile, world CO2 emissions have increased 7,153 million metric tons from 2005 – 2018, a 24.7% increase…..mostly China, Russia, etc.
The entire European Union now emits less carbon than India and about one-third as much as China. In fact, if every American and European stopped emitting carbon entirely and went back to living in caves, the world as a whole would still produce more carbon dioxide now than it did 20 years ago, according to journalist and author Robert Bryce.
Seventy five percent of electricity in India is generated by coal, and they plan to continue to expand that. “It would be suicidal on our part to give up on coal,” said Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister of India.
Most of the wealthy countries, like the U.S., are outlawing coal at the same time that developing countries are building hundreds of gigawatts of new coal-fired generation capacity. This bifurcation – and coal’s persistence in the global electricity mix – likely poses the single biggest challenge to the politicians and climate activists who want to see dramatic cuts in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. CO2 emissions are on a downward trend in America, but increasing globally despite whatever America does.
The persistence of coal in India, China and other countries shows that people will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need. And they have every right to do so for their citizens. It also shows that global warming concerns are not as important to people as reliable electricity.
Japan also demonstrates coal’s enduring popularity. In 1997, Kyoto was the site of the first international treaty to reduce emissions, the Kyoto Protocol. But Japan continues to rely heavily on coal. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan shuttered all 54 of its nuclear plants (which are all non-carbon emitting by the way). By 2018, Japan had restarted just seven of those 54. The loss of that non-carbon emitting nuclear capacity, combined with the need to keep electricity prices in check, led Japan to turn to more coal-fired electricity. Between 2016 and 2018, Japan opened 8 new coal power plants, and the country has plans to build about 30 more, thus abandoning its prior pledges.
Coal has persisted throughout the world because it can be used to produce the vast quantities of electricity the world demands at prices consumers can afford. Even as the pressures mount from environmental activists and governments, the need for abundant, reliable electricity will continue to be a priority for people all over the world.