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American coal policy struggling to deal with economically friendly clean power

Last of a dying energy source

Donald Trump promised to put an  end to the “war on coal.” Surrounded by the usual gaggle of officials and (in this case) coal miners, 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 week, but no less an authority than Robert Murray—founder and CEO of the biggest US coal company Murray Energy—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 US greenhouse gas emissions, it will not have a major impact on global emissions.

That is partly because the US accounts for only 16 percent of global emissions. Compared to China’s 29 percent, 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 intends to invest $361 billion (equal to half the US 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, 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 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 percent of US electricity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 percent, 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 50 coal mining companies went bankrupt.

Half the 765 remaining big coal-fired plants in the US 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 percent of American coal-fired 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. Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good intentions to do the right thing for climate safety any more; just common sense. From fuel efficiency in automobiles to replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas or solar arrays, saving money goes hand-in-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.

Last year, Obama promised to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 percent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 percent. The US accounts for 16 percent of global emissions, so do the math: 13 percent of 16 percent equals about two percent 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 percent higher than they would have been if the US had kept its promise to the Paris conference. And that’s all.

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