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