Ecocentric

The War on Coal Is Being Won in the U.S., but the Real Battle Is Overseas

A new report predicts that up to 1,200 new coal plants could be built around the world. Why that would be game over for the climate

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Nelson Ching / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A worker labors to develop a new coal mine shaft in Shanxi Province, China, March 24, 2011.

There’s a war on coal in America — or at least that’s what players in the coal industry say. They’re not entirely wrong. Coal prices in the U.S. are falling and coal plants are being retired. Most of that change is being driven by what analysts refer to as “market conditions” — otherwise known as shale gas and fracking, which has driven prices for natural gas down, down, down. That’s encouraged utilities to phase out coal in favor of cleaner natural gas — a transition that has been accelerated by federal environmental regulations that will increasingly limit the sort of air pollution associated with old coal plants.

It’s no surprise, then, that the coal industry pushed hard for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election — or that coal bosses like Robert Murray, of Ohio-based Murray Energy, fired dozens of employees after the election as the industry went into survival mode. Though perhaps Mr. Murray could have saved some of the $100,000 the company donated to the conservative super PAC American Crossroads for payroll costs.

But if the future of coal is looking dim in the U.S. with cheap natural gas and a Democrat in the White House, it’s as bright as a steel furnace in much of the rest of the world. In 2010 the global coal trade rose by 13.4%, reaching 1.08 billion metric tons. In a new report, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that nearly 1,200 new coal plants are at least in the planning stages worldwide. Though the projects are spread across the globe, more than three-quarters of the new plants are set to be built in India and China. If every one of those plants were to be built and activated, it would add 1.4 million MW of coal-fired electricity capacity to the global grid. Since coal is already the single biggest contributor to man-made global warming, an unchecked global coal-building spree really would be game over for the climate — no matter what happens in the U.S.


(MORE: The U.S. Will Be an Oil Giant Again. But It Won’t Be Energy Independent)

That question will depend on whether most or even many of those proposed coal plants are actually built. (The WRI report counts 36 proposed new coal plants in the U.S., for instance, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an analyst who believes that building boom is likely.) As Brad Plumer writes in the Washington Post, even in China — where the government was building multiple plants a week as recently as the past decade — may be slowing down on coal:

Take China, which now has at least 363 large plants in the pipeline. The country has likely passed its peak in terms of coal expansion, says Yang; it’s no longer building two new plants a week the way it was back in the early 2000s. And some analysts have suggested that China’s gargantuan coal appetite could wane in the years ahead, as economic growth slows and pollution concerns become more pressing. So it’s quite possible that a big portion of those 363 proposed plants won’t ever get built. A lot rests on whether the Chinese government decides to tighten its current voluntary cap on coal consumption or pursue new climate policies.

India, the other big coal market, has more than 450 proposed coal plants on the book — and it also has a desperate need to increase electricity generation, as this summer’s massive New Delhi blackout demonstrated. The International Energy Agency recently predicted that India will overtake the U.S. as the second biggest user of coal — after China — by 2025 and will be the largest net importer of coal as early as 2020. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised to electrify every household in the next five years — hundreds of millions of Indians lack any access to reliable electricity — and it’s hard to imagine that coal won’t be a big part of that transition, just as it was with China and the U.S.

The WRI report makes for some scary reading, especially if you pair it with a new World Bank assessment that predicts that the world is on track for a 4ºC temperature rise by 2060 if the world’s governments do nothing to mitigate carbon emissions. That’s far above the 2ºC red line that many scientists have identified as the largest possible temperature increase the world could endure without potentially catastrophic consequences. “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change. It is one of the single biggest challenges to social justice today,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told journalists at the launch of the report.

That’s true, although it’s worth noting that at least some of those proposed coal plants might be built with World Bank financing. (In fairness, the World Bank has been moving to restrict financing to coal plants.) That’s the dilemma. One of the fastest ways to pull a population out of poverty is to provide electricity for all. Coal power — largely because externalities like air pollution and climate change are rarely priced into the cost of energy — remains the cheapest way to generate that electricity. The war on coal is being won in the U.S., but that won’t make much of a difference to global climate change. The real war is being fought in countries like China and India — and there may be little we can do to influence their policy choices. Too bad we’ll all have to live with the consequences.

MORE: Why Climate Change Has Become the Missing Issue in the Presidential Campaign

35 comments
BradleyStone
BradleyStone

I question whether or not those coal-fired plants will even manage to provide access to the grid to those who 'need' it in the first place.

BobArmstrong
BobArmstrong

This NonScience war on the molecule whose marriage to water by sunlight thru photosynthesis marks the emergence of life  is a fraud so profoundly stupid it is anti- the very life it demands Global State Dictatorial Force to protect .

That children graduate from school fearing the very element out of which they are made is criminal .

These frauds and useful idiots have grossly retarded the teaching of quantitative science in their willful determined arrogantstupidity . 

Dachman
Dachman

This sure doesn't sound like news reporting, it sounds quite a bit like an opinion piece though.

nobonesl
nobonesl

Coal is wonderful because cancer is good.

nobonesl
nobonesl

"Clean Coal" is as real as "nutritious cyanide".

TerryClifton
TerryClifton

Mr. Walsh, 

Have you ever given a second thought to who the casualties of the ongoing War On in America really are? Since I doubt you have ever stepped foot in the counties or towns that produce coal let me tell you who's going to suffer the most from the insane policies being written by unelected EPA Nazis. First, the miners, they aren't a bunch of backward idiots that crawl on their hands and knees with a shovel and pick; they are hard working providers for their families and communities who operate pieces of equipment that run into the millions of dollars. They also pay taxes, give to charity, support local and regional businesses with their paychecks. Second, small businesses who survive in the region depend on the coal industry to keep their businesses and families going. Third, hospital, schools, local, state, and yes, even the federal government depend on the taxes that the coal industry brings to the coffers. Without the revenue and support of the coal industry, whole towns, counties, and even huge parts of the coal producing states will turn into a poverty stricken nightmare, but you don't have to worry you don't live here, so that's great for you. There's one more thing you're leaving out of this conversation, and that's what happens after Lisa Jackson gets her way, and there's no more coal fired power plants, who's going to stop her from going after the natural gas companies? Oh wait, she's already doing that as well. So here's my solution..The coal industry and the natural industry should say no more coal and natural gas will fire any power plant in the United States of America.. That will force the immediate shutdown of every power plant including North of The Mason Dixon Line where you live, and then they should export all future gas and coal to China and other countries. That should make the Climate Nazi's (including you) very happy as you sit in the dark, with nothing to do but wonder, when those solar panels are coming online. Imagine that..You could declare victory in the war on coal and natural gas, as you burned your furniture to keep from freezing to death..Now that thought keeps me warm all over..

WillieWonka
WillieWonka

The war on coal is being waged by the gas companies, not, as some would have you believe, by the Obama administration.  What the administration is waging war on is pollution caused by coal, oil, and gas, and this is as it should be.  I would have the war on pollution and the war against climate change escalated by a few hundred percent.  

harrywr2
harrywr2

India's 12th 5 year plan is here..they are adding all of 76 GW of coal fired plant between now and 2017.

http://planningcommission.nic.in/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp12/wg_power1904.pdf

Anyone who thinks they can predict the energy market more then 5 years out is delusional (Peabody Coal stock was trading at triple it's current value in 2008, anyone in 2008 that  talked about $4/MMBtu gas would have been laughed at)

China's latest generation and capacity numbers are here -

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/11/14/china-power-consumption-idUKL3E8ME0SJ20121114

Year on Year Coal Fired Capaicity is up, Year on Year coal fire utilization rates are down. Also investment is hydro + nuclear is more then double investment in coal fired plants.

Hydro and Nuclear and Wind are all cheaper then burning coal in China. Chinese construction costs are 40% less then in the US but the price of coal in China is almost double.

Coal isn't the 'cheapest way' in China to generate electricity, it's the quickest way.  To be maximally cost effective, wind needs hydro for load balancing. Hydro takes a long  time to build. China's 2015 target for Hydro is 290 GW and for Wind it's 100GW. For 2020 it's 400GW of Hydro and 200GW of wind.

China has 2 GW of solar installed, the 2015 target is 20 GW.

China's 2020 Generating Capacity target has been 1,600 GW for a long time. Given the timeline for hydro which controls the timeline for wind and the timelines for expanding nuclear they were always going to have to 'fill in the missing capacity' with about 800-900 GW of coal. They have 790 GW of coal now.

A ton of coal sells for about $9.50 in Gillette,Wyoming. A ton of coal at a Chinese coal import terminal sells for almost 10 times that amount. 

Coal costs a lot of money to transport. In the US transportation costs for coal are now 40% of the price delivered to electric utilities.

qdepim
qdepim

The last sentences of this article are very outrageous. I don't mean to undervalue the professionalism of the author. Bryan Walsh showed many times that he knows his work and the longevity of the TIME speaks for itself. But pointing the fact that "The real war is being fought in countries like China and India — and there may be little we can do to influence their policy choices". First of all, thank God we (US in this case) cannot "influence" the policy of sovereign countries even if we disagree with them! And secondly, could we remind that US is part of those western and develop countries that refused to sign the Kyoto protocol that aimed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas, making the efforts of all others signatories pointless... And not talking about the industry of shale gas that is not helping the improvement of climate changes! I am not particulary against the strategy of enregetic independence, but instead of blaming foreign countries,US could at least play it fair and recognize their responsabilities on this particualr debate. I understand patriotism, but not at the cost of bad faith. And as pointed out on twitter:  http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8790

signatoriessignatoriessignatories

549bear
549bear

Its not so long ago that the situation which is happening in India & China was part of everyday life in the U.K. I can remember the killer smogs of the fifties and the chaos that it brought about. Now, with the projected developement of coal fired power stations in these two countries, the consequencies for public health in these countries is bleak to say the least. Already, a major part of there population lives below the poverty line, and starvation is an ever present shadow. I wonder if building power stations will lift the under nourished and the impoverised out of there way of life, I doubt it!  If the truth be known, these impoverished people will never be able to enjoy the benifits of an electrical society, how can they, when they cannot afford to feed there familys, some choice, I dont think, you cannot eat a new electric kettle! It would have been better if they invested the cost of these new power stations in better food production, public health and education. In there mad scramble to become a modern society, they have overlooked the basics for the majority of the population, the only layer of there society who will benift are there elite, and they dont care about the plebs, do they!  

akpat
akpat

We could reduce the CO2 output in this country by almost 50% if we went over to nuke power. We should be building as many nuke plants as we can and have a clean source of electricity.

At that point we can go over to electric cars and reduce the output of CO2 from motor vehicles and we could do all this in a decade.

In the meantime we will h=just sit idly by procreating in ever bigger numbers until there is not enough food to go around.

LarsJorgensen
LarsJorgensen

The only way we can convince developing countries to forgo coal based electricity would be to invent a lower cost alternative to coal.  That appears to be possible using thorium molten salt reactors (see TED presentations by Kirk Sorensen on LFTR).

melonheadx13
melonheadx13

Why should the developing world be denied what we have had allalong?  The fact is that this come as no surprise but should make us allrealize that we have to adapt and cope with climate change as we cannot stop itor even slow it.why can't everyone who wants a car in china or anywhere else have one?we don't get to dominate the world by denying everyone else what we have andfeel entitled to.  we now find ourselves in a hypocritical dilemma--tryingto tell developing countries they are doing it wrong by doing exactly what wehave done shamelessly for over a century.

pmennick
pmennick

Isn't it ironic that Australia, one of the world's largest resources and exporters of coal, and whose own national electrical supply is about 80% supplied by coal, is one of the first to push hard for, and institute, this "carbon tax".  Of course this tax does absolutely nothing to change demand, or encourage developing countries to use another power source, its just another money source for the Government.  Does anyone outside of Government with half a brain actually believe that the carbon tax idea will do much of anything to curb emissions??

JKBullis
JKBullis

It is inescable that coal usage is tightly locked with the state of the economy and thus jobs. When natural gas was at $2 per MMBTU it looked possible that natural gas would be the fuel of marginal response to electric power load variations, though the falling price of coal made even that unlikely. We should look for actual energy supplied from natural gas to stay fairly constant as the prosperity varies, while coal use will follow our jobs and growth.

Progress would involve developing products that used much less energy. Not simply choking off the supply.

Yes, we know how to over populate the world, though unfortunately that seems to be more related to our ability to feed an expanding population. I had hoped the zealous would have gotten busy with planned parenting as a way to limit this, rather than using starvation as the population limiting mechanism.

JKBullis
JKBullis

The position of President Obama, the Democrat in the White House, was reported as follows:Obama emphasized, however, that Americans "have been so focused on, and will continue to be focused on, our economy, jobs and growth.""If the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change," he added, "I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that."But if the plan is to "create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change ... I think that's something the American people would support," Obama said.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

The problem is that from a global climate destruction viewpoint we are already so far past the tipping point that it is unlikely in the extreme that any (politically or technically) foreseeable measures will actually achieve a positive outcome.

The only "event" realistically capable of possibly providing a long term beneficial outcome is global economic collapse and concurrent death of over 90 percent of the human population.

Technology and the industrial revolution gave us the ability to over populate and to exploit and pollute our planet way beyond it's capacity.

Many of these effects, though inevitable take a while to get in motion. We have produced the problems very quickly, but are only just now starting to understand the severity of their really long term effects.

The earth is a giant balanced aquarium, but we have unbalanced it and when that happens in an aquarium all the fish die.

We may already be too late, but if not it is going to take an almost equally unimaginable tragedy if humans are to survive at all.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Finishing the thought of my previous comment:

The fact that coal usage is down is thus an indicator that the US economy is doing very badly.

kaarun
kaarun

I do agree with the observation that while US is moving away from Coal, India and China will be using up more coal. But please observe a few figures: US has Coal plants totalling an installed capacity of 317 GW as back as 2010  http://www.eia.gov/electricity/capacity/  Contrast this with India's coal based generation capacity of just 120 GW as on 2012 http://cea.nic.in/reports/monthly/executive_rep/oct12/8.pdfThis brings to the question of whether anyone can blame India for its developmental needs and say US stopped new coal based generation?? Again if one wants to talk of greenhouse gas effect, carbon footprint etc, let me please remind that per capita energy consumption in US is nearly more than 12000 kWh while in India it is around 1/20th of it - nearly 600 kWh! http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PCThus I hope the author think twice the next time before making suggestions on the impact of plants in developing economies on the world ecology.

JKBullis
JKBullis

There is a distortion in understanding of trends where the percentage of coal used in power generation is the basis of conclusions.  The fact is that coal is the basis of marginal response, so relative changes in amount of energy used are followed by relative changes in use of coal more than any other fuel. 

jdyer2
jdyer2

The US coal industry may be losing some battles, but it will certainly win the war.  Coal exports from the US are growing and will continue to grow to feed all these new powerplants throughout the world. In effect, the US switch to natural gas is just saving the coal for the rest of the world to use.

jbay
jbay

@BobArmstrong 

Please give children and quantitative scientists a little more credit, and yourself a little less. Carbon dioxide is a wonderful molecule, like any, in moderation.

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

@TerryClifton When the oceans are dead and the planet wrecked, I don't think those "good"coal jobs are going to much use to those miners and their families. If you really understood what was happening I don't think you would be writing this apologia.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

@TerryClifton 

Spoken like a true Coal Miner or Lumberjack or Commercial Fisherman for that matter.

Each one of these is a livelihood that is defended on the basis of the employment of those involved doing it.

The lumbermen cut down all the trees and went bankrupt.

The Commercial fisherman have depleted the oceans so severely that most of them have gone bankrupt and the resource is so depleted that now in may areas that were dependent on it people go hungry.

BUT, the miners are worst of all, yes it's a livelihood.

For you, but as regards coal in particular not for your kids.

Why you ask, because the kids are all going to die largely from the coal emission damage done to the planet already.

If we stopped mining (and burning) coal today the ongoing destruction already caused to the earth by burning coal will continue to degrade the Earths climate for thousands of years.

We have just seen the tip of this slow to start mechanism, but it's moving now and it's speeding up.

Ten years from now look at what the world is then and think back to this BLOG.

It is (barely) possible it could still be fixed adequately for at least some portion of humanity to survive, but thanks to people like you, it won't be.

Rachita
Rachita

@harrywr2 Hi, I would like to clarify that India's power sector performance during the 12th plan has been modest at best so far, and the country is already falling short of achieving the annual targets set for hydro and thermal capacity addition. For instance, only 421 MW, or 52.5% of the capacity envisaged for FY 2012-13, is likely to be added by the year end. There are documents available on the central government websites in case you are interested to look deeper into this issue.

nhautamaki
nhautamaki

@549bear 

Lung cancer is already up some ridiculous amount in Beijing in the last decade.  There's a time article floating around with the exact number here.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@549bear I don't think many of them will live to see the rampant pollution being an issue. Once the Asian coastal cities start getting submerged every other storm you will see a mass exodus inland. Inland lands that are desperately needed for farmland to feed all those billions of people.

Between population, water and food instabilities I think their is a pretty good chance ww3 will be fought in our life times. I only pray that it doesn't go nuclear.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@melonheadx13 We need to be downsizing our consumption based lifestyles and economy at the same time we push for them not to go crazy imitating what we have been doing.

jbay
jbay

@pmennick I think it's economists who argued that when the prices of things go up, consumption generally goes down. Especially when alternative energy sources exist that become competitive at a price difference of a few cents per kilowatt-hour. Whether you believe that argument or not is of course up to you.

BobArmstrong
BobArmstrong

@GaryRMcCray   Oh , poof . 

If you know anything , you know that since the evolution of photosynthesis green life has ripped the oxygen out of all the original CO2 and driven the concentration of CO2 down to only a couple of more molecules per 10,000 of air necessary to sustain plant life . So you're saying a decrease is better for the biosphere than another molecule per 10k ?  Plant life strongly disagrees with you .

crc60
crc60

This lucid post highlights the reality of the burning of fossil fuels... eventually, one way or the other, all affordable fossil fuels will be turned into CO2 and other by products.  It's not a matter of if, but where and when.

jbay
jbay

@BobArmstrong @GaryRMcCray As much as I appreciate the wisdom of plant life, I would prefer today's Earth over that of the Permian period (let alone Mars or Venus). It's not really the biosphere that I am so interested in protecting, but human civilization and agriculture, which are adapted to our present climate conditions and the biosphere of today. I am sure that many species would do just fine with more carbon, but not necessarily the ones that we are accustomed to.

nhautamaki
nhautamaki

@crc60 

Very true.  The only way this does not happen is if another power source appears that is somehow far more efficient than even fossil fuels--or if the human race goes extinct first.