King Coal’s Stages of Grief, Part 4: Bargaining for Delay

, senior energy analyst | July 24, 2015, 2:52 pm EDT
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This week’s post in my ongoing series focuses on the third stage of grief, bargaining. The U.S. coal industry continues to get hammered by a series of terrible earnings reports, an ongoing wave of bankruptcies, and falling bond prices. Since my last post, Alpha Natural Resources has been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange because of consistently and unusually low stock prices, and Arch Coal executed a 10-1 reverse stock split in an effort to delay the same fate. In the bargaining stage, the grieving person typically looks for ways to avoid the ultimate fate, or buy time. For the coal industry, the bargaining stage manifests itself as industry supporters trying to delay any attempt to limit pollution from coal, including action to reduce carbon emissions.

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This post is the fourth in a series on King Coal’s Stages of Grief: Facing a Changing Future.

A drop in the bucket

One of the favorite arguments among opponents of action on climate change is that anything we do to reduce emissions here in the U.S. is pointless because of growing emissions in the developing world, particularly in China and India. All pain, no gain, they say. Let’s look at this flawed argument in more detail.

This argument has until recently been a powerful one against action—mostly because of the scale of the emissions problem. Any action or effort to reduce GHGs, taken by one country alone, is not sufficient to solve the global problem. That’s true whether you consider the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, the tailpipe standards improving gas mileage for motor vehicles, or the proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. And it’s as true for the U.S. as it’s true for any other country in the world. The point is that we all need to use all tools available to us in order to reduce global emissions to address the climate crisis. The fact that that any one action is insufficient to solve the global problem is not a reason to give up—it’s a reason to do more, and do it together.

U.S. leadership is critical and is already helping to catalyze climate commitments from China and Brazil among others, and helping to pave the path toward a global climate agreement. Demonstrating that leadership is a big reason why we argued that the EPA should strengthen the proposed Clean Power Plan.

What about China?

Beijing air pollution. Source: Flickr

Beijing air pollution. Source: Flickr

Opponents of action on climate also argue that just because the U.S. leads on reducing emissions, other nations won’t necessarily follow. China won’t agree to emissions reductions and has no incentive to cut back on coal use, they say. But the truth of the matter is that China is acting—in big ways—to reduce emissions.

Late last fall the U.S. and China announced a joint agreement to reduce emissions. China pledged to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to peak emissions by that date—which will have big implications for how much coal the country will consume. China submitted these actions as part of its nationally determined commitments by 2030. The agreement breathed life into international climate negotiations and has laid the groundwork for a robust agreement this December in Paris.

In fact, China’s CO2 emissions were essentially flat from 2013 to 2014, along with a 2.9 percent decrease in coal consumption.

China has another big motivation for reducing coal use—air pollution. Beijing’s famously bad air got a new round of attention earlier this year after an online documentary went viral. Beijing announced this spring that it plans to permanently close all four major coal fired power plants within the city in order to cut pollution.

And India, also heavily reliant on coal, doubled its tax on coal earlier this year and plans to use the revenue to invest in renewable energy projects. The new tax, equivalent to about $3.20 per ton, went into effect on April 1.

Exports

As the domestic market for U.S. coal continues to falter, many companies have looked toward exports as a way to continue to make money. However, China’s commitments to reduce coal consumption could put the brakes on the supposed boom in coal exports. That, combined with a sharp decrease in China’s economic growth rate, paints a dour picture for the future of U.S. coal exports.

Historical emissions

China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. It’s true. On an annual basis. That is, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s leading annual emitter of greenhouse gases around 2006 or 2007.

Historically speaking, however, the U.S. and the rest of the developed world have a huge responsibility for GHGs emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This is important, because carbon dioxide, once released to the atmosphere, remains there for a long time, on the order of centuries. So, in a very real sense, the critical number is not the annual emissions of GHGs, but rather the cumulative emissions.

And in terms of cumulative emissions, as well as per capita emissions, the U.S. is handily the world leader. World Resources Institute did an interesting and comprehensive analysis of the world’s top emitters, and the U.S. tops the list of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide from 1850 to 2011, at 27 percent of the world total, more that the 28 members of the European Union combined. Where’s China? 11 percent, although it’s catching up frighteningly quickly. India is down the list at just 3 percent of the world total. Check out the Global Carbon Atlas for some interesting ways to visualize worldwide emissions.

No time to delay

In short, the bargaining stage represents an attempt to delay the inevitable. The problem is that we can’t afford more delay. We are already witnessing major shifts in the Earth’s climate that will have profound impacts on human society. We’ve got to make serious changes. As this reality sets in, we can see signs of our next stage of grief, depression. That’s why we need to commit to making those changes in a way that is just and equitable to coal miners and the communities that depend on coal for their livelihoods.

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  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for providing some useful info about China, GHG’s, etc so people can put the issue of moving away from coal into a broader perspective.

    Unless/until people can get some much needed support and have viable alternavites to look forward to, however, they will not be inclined to move past anger and bargaining into the next phases of grieving. I hope you will address this more fully in your upcoming posts.

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