By Dana Nucitelli in The Guardian, Oct 2017
If there ever was a war on coal, the coal industry has lost. According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, many old American coal power plants are being retired or converted to natural gas, and new coal power plants aren’t being built because they’ve become more expensive than natural gas, wind, and solar energy:
The share of US electricity coming from coal fell from 51% in 2008 to 31% in 2016—an unprecedented change. New UCS analysis finds that, of the coal units that remain, roughly one in four plans to retire or convert to natural gas; another 17% are uneconomic and could face retirement soon.
Natural gas has now surpassed coal to supply 32% of US electricity (up from 21% in 2008), and solar and wind are up to 10% (from 3% in 2008).
This trend will continue. As old coal plants continue to retire and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas, their share of the US electricity supply will continue to plummet, and coal will become a fossil fuel in every sense of the word. That’s why American companies continue to invest in cheap, clean renewable energy. As a result, our air and water are becoming cleaner, Americans are becoming healthier, and our carbon pollution is falling.
The shift away from coal poses a challenge for regions in which the local economy depends on the fossil fuel, but the transition is inevitable. A wise economic policy would involve funding programs to help those regions adapt to the change (Hillary Clinton proposed one such plan during her presidential campaign). A recent study showed that Americans are willing to pay a carbon tax with some of the revenue going to assist displaced coal workers. The Trump administration has instead opted to try and slow coal’s inevitable decline.
Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced a plan to effectively take coal out of the free market and instead subsidize it with taxpayer dollars to bail out the industry and keep uneconomical coal power plants open. The hypocrisy ran thick – as Perry called for propping up the coal industry with increased taxpayer subsidies, Pruitt called for an end to subsidies for renewable energy:
I would do away with these incentives that we give to wind and solar. I’d let them stand on their own and compete against coal and natural gas and other sources, and let utilities make real-time market decisions on those types of things as opposed to being propped up by tax incentives and other types of credits that occur
Soon thereafter, Priutt announced that Trump’s EPA will repeal the Clean Power Plan. That policy represented America’s most significant effort to cut its carbon pollution, but had been mired in a legal battle over whether the plan exceeded EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act. Rather than let the courts decide the case, which many experts felt the EPA would win, Pruitt stopped defending the case in court and ended the program.
The problem is that according to the US Supreme Court, the EPA is legally required to regulate dangerous carbon pollution. Pruitt’s EPA may propose a dramatically weakened plan that probably wouldn’t survive a court challenge, or he may just try to run out the clock on Trump’s term. As with the disastrous Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they don’t have a replacement plan. In the meantime, states and environmental groups will take his Clean Power Plan repeal to court.
However, because renewables and natural gas are now cheaper than coal, an analysis by the Rhodium Group found that the US will meet the Clean Power Plan target of cutting carbon pollution from electricity generation 32% below 2005 levels by 2030 despite its repeal.
That being said, with the Clean Power Plan in place, the US likely would have beat its targets. As this excellent tool created by Carbon Brief shows, many states like California and Idaho are ahead of the curve, but other states like Texas and West Virginia would have been forced to accelerate their transitions to clean energy, had the Clean Power Plan been enforced.
The ball is in Congress’ court
The good news is that none of the Trump administration’s moves are permanent. The next president can rejoin the Paris climate agreement, have the EPA draft new rules to regulate power plant carbon pollution, and revise the social cost of carbon based on real science and math. As Citizens’ Climate Lobby Executive Director Mark Reynolds wrote:
Those who cheer the EPA’s move should remember that President Obama initiated the Clean Power Plan in 2015 in the face of Congress’s inaction on climate change. Without effective legislation to combat climate change, a future president could just as easily go down the path of executive action and regulations again. The best answer here is for Congress to pass legislation putting the market to work on solving climate change.
There’s been some movement in this direction. A group of Republican elder statesmen in the Climate Leadership Council called for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which would grow the economy. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently called for a price on carbon pollution and is said to be working with Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) on climate legislation. The House Climate Solutions Caucus is now up to 30 Republican and 30 Democratic members and is trying to craft a bipartisan replacement for the Clean Power Plan.
The Trump administration is taking every possible step to burn away our future, but fortunately the transition to a clean energy economy is unstoppable, and many of his party members are coming to grips with that reality.
Most nations recently agreed to hold global average temperature rise to well below 2 °C. We examine how much climate mitigation nature can contribute to this goal with a comprehensive analysis of “natural climate solutions” (NCS): 20 conservation, restoration, and/or improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. We show that NCS can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2 °C. Alongside aggressive fossil fuel emissions reductions, NCS offer a powerful set of options for nations to deliver on the Paris Climate Agreement while improving soil productivity, cleaning our air and water, and maintaining biodiversity.
Better stewardship of land is needed to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement goal of holding warming to below 2 °C; however, confusion persists about the specific set of land stewardship options available and their mitigation potential. To address this, we identify and quantify “natural climate solutions” (NCS): 20 conservation, restoration, and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. We find that the maximum potential of NCS—when constrained by food security, fiber security, and biodiversity conservation—is 23.8 petagrams of CO2 equivalent (PgCO2e) y−1 (95% CI 20.3–37.4). This is ≥30% higher than prior estimates, which did not include the full range of options and safeguards considered here. About half of this maximum (11.3 PgCO2e y−1) represents cost-effective climate mitigation, assuming the social cost of CO2 pollution is ≥100 USD MgCO2e−1 by 2030.
Natural climate solutions can provide 37% of cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030 for a >66% chance of holding warming to below 2 °C. One-third of this cost-effective NCS mitigation can be delivered at or below 10 USD MgCO2−1. Most NCS actions—if effectively implemented—also offer water filtration, flood buffering, soil health, biodiversity habitat, and enhanced climate resilience. Work remains to better constrain uncertainty of NCS mitigation estimates. Nevertheless, existing knowledge reported here provides a robust basis for immediate global action to improve ecosystem stewardship as a major solution to climate change.
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. A global spatial dataset of reforestation opportunities has been deposited on Zenodo (https://zenodo.org/record/883444). This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1710465114/-/DCSupplemental.