The Biden administration arrived this month at international climate talks in Scotland with the intention of proving that the United States is once again ready to lead the fight against global warming.
But when more than 40 countries signed a pledge to phase out coal over the next few decades, the United States was clearly absent.
The White House’s reluctance to sign the pledge speaks volumes about Coal’s continued political influence in the face of declining fortunes.
Few countries have hammered coal as hard as the United States in the past decade. Stagnant demand for electricity, low natural gas prices and the steadily declining cost of renewables have fueled the shutdown of U.S. coal-fired power plants – overwhelming former President Trump’s efforts to revive the fortunes of the United States. industry.
Yet coal retains political power. The Biden administration’s decision not to sign the coal phase-out pledge comes as Democrats haggle over a budget bill in Congress that would affect billions of dollars in clean energy subsidies. Finalizing this deal requires securing the vote of Senator Joe Manchin, the coal-dependent Democrat from West Virginia who holds the deciding vote in the Senate.
âWhat you see in the United States in connection with this announcement is a quiet belief that the markets will do the dirty work, and politicians don’t need to get their hands dirty saying the quiet part to the high. voice, “said Justin Guay, who follows climate policy at the Sunrise Project, an international rights organization.
Coal production in the United States is on the rise in 2021, thanks to higher natural gas prices. Few analysts believe the rebound in the United States will last. The bigger question is how long America’s coal-fired power plants can hold up.
The United States remains the world‘s third largest consumer of coal, even after a decade that saw the country shut down a quarter of its coal capacity. Another quarter is expected to end by 2030, according to figures from the US Energy Information Administration.
When the International Energy Agency paved the way for net zero emissions earlier this year, it concluded that the use of coal in rich countries like the United States is expected to end in the 2030s, followed by developing economies in the 2040s. This projection was echoed in the coal phase-out signed in Scotland last week.
Some analysts believe that the end of coal in the United States could come fairly quickly, even without government intervention. The economic case for continued investment in mining and supporting infrastructure, such as railways, becomes more difficult as the industry contracts, said James Stevenson, an analyst who tracks the industry at IHS Markit, a consulting firm.
In the meantime, no new coal-fired power plant is planned. IHS predicts that U.S. consumption of coal in power plants will reach 160 million tonnes in 2030, up from around 500 million tonnes last year.
“This structural transformation away from coal is happening regardless of political will,” said Leo Roberts, analyst at E3G, a climate think tank. âThere’s also no coal pipeline in the United States, so just because the United States isn’t here doesn’t mean the United States isn’t going without coal as well. “
The reluctance of the United States to make a public commitment to phase out coal contrasts sharply with three Southeast Asian countries that have supported this commitment.
Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam have all signed. In 2020, these three countries ranked seventh, eighth and ninth in global coal consumption, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
And Indonesia and Vietnam have the potential for more growth. Indonesia’s planned 19 gigawatts rank third in the world according to a recent E3G report. Vietnam had forecast 18 GW, fourth.
South Korea’s signing came weeks after Seoul pledged to phase out coal by 2050, which would amount to a rapid acceleration in the country’s commitment. Indonesia and Vietnam have pledged to stop construction of new factories and phase out existing factories in the 2040s, the goal of developing economies. Both countries have said their commitments depend on receiving international funding to help reduce their dependence on coal.
Some of that money has started to flow. The Climate Investment Funds announced $ 2.5 billion to repay the debts of existing factories in South Africa, Indonesia, India and the Philippines and accelerate their retirement.
The Asian Development Bank announced a similar plan for two funds destined for Indonesia and the Philippines. One would pay to accelerate the decommissioning of existing plants, while the other would finance clean energy. The bank estimates that a full scale-up of the program could reduce emissions by 200 million tonnes per year. Indonesia’s total emissions, for reference, were 589 million tonnes last year.
In Asia, where gas is less available and where renewables make up a large portion of alternative electricity, governments are a bigger driver of the transition to coal, Stevenson said.
âThere is a certain habit of seeing Southeast Asia as a rapid growth and a strong push for coal. What we’ve really seen in the last three or four years is project cancellations, âStevenson said. “Asians are keen as a population to do their part on the climate, and at the government level there is a sense in a lot of countries, obviously not at all, to do what the biggest economies are doing and do these announcements. “
But if governments are driving transformation in Asia, it is the US market.
The momentum was underscored by an announcement last week by Southern Co. The Georgia-based utility said it would shut down more than half of its coal fleet this decade. The announcement was unrelated to the international coal engagement. Southern’s move is the result of a decision not to upgrade a series of units with federal wastewater standards (Energy wire, November 5).
Still, the episode sheds light on the way forward for the United States. Southern was the third-largest utilities emitter in the United States in 2019, according to MJ Bradley, a consulting firm. The retirements will affect two units at the Bowen plant and one unit at the Scherer plant. Georgia’s two power plants rank among the largest coal-fired plants in America, but each has seen a decline in electricity production in recent years.
Southern’s Plant Miller in neighboring Alabama was not on the list. Miller emitted more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, more than the combined emissions of Scherer and Bowen, according to EPA data.
Southern Co. has no plans to shut down Miller.
Climate Hawks say this puts the United States in danger of missing its climate goals and underscores the need for government intervention.
âThe reality is that the coal industry in the United States is in structural decline,â Guay said. âThe only question is the timeline. That is why we need political intervention. This is the only reason. It is inevitable that this industry will disappear.
Journalist Sara Schonhardt contributed.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential information for energy and environment professionals.