As I have spent some sleepless nights since the latest IPCC report on how Mankind has to halve its carbon emissions by 2030. For both the European Union and the United States of America, the first step in doing so is killing King Coal. As we shall see, this is already currently happening, it is the moral thing to do, the best economic choice, and the fastest and easiest way to halve our emissions.
Burning coal in these two regions account for a little under two gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, with 1.29 billion tonnes and 700 millions tonnes for the US and the EU, respectively. While in the grand scheme of things this might not look much, emissions from coal account for 19 and 18 percent of the total emissions of the US and and EU, making its phase out an imperative, and as we’ll see today, a relatively simple step.
The following article is based on a presentation I gave last year to my classmates and friends during my MBA at Presidio Graduate School. Numbers have been updated with current figures.
Both the United States and the European Union electricity generations have 25-30% coal (historically much higher, hence its title of King), natural gas 35%, nuclear 20-25% and renewables make up 15% on both markets. Yet, coal account for two-thirds of the carbon emissions of electricity generation in both regions. Some US States and EU countries already have little to no coal at all (for example, the UK virtually phase out coal in the past few years). On the other side of the spectrum, some States or countries rely a lot on it such as Indiana or Kentucky / Germany and Poland.
A 2010 US study showed that stopping burning coal could be done by 2030 with renewables and energy efficiency. More recently, another study showed it had to be done in OECD nations to comply with the Paris Agreement targets.
But coal is already in terminal decline in both the US and the EU, all that is needed is a little push: Bloomberg New Energy Finance has confirmed this month that US coal plant retirements are nearing an all-time high, with at least 16 gigawatts (GW) worth of coal-fired plants already retired in 2018. In the European Union, just this month, both Spain and Hungary have outlined projects to stop burning coal by 2030.
A moral imperative
Burning coal emits twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and up to 50 times more than solar and wind in their entire lifecycles (manufacturing and recycling included). Coal also emits other air pollution factors such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter… All this causes smog and soot which in turn cause asthma, cancers of all sorts, cardiovascular diseases…
Which brings us to its health effects: coal is a mass murderer and is responsible for immense suffering. It is estimated coal is responsible for 13,000 to 53,000 deaths in the US and 23,000 deaths in the European Union each year! Elsewhere, in China, coal is directly responsible for a staggering 366,000 premature deaths per year. It is worth remember that overall, air pollution accounts for 7 million deaths per year (WHO). This is why coal has been hailed as the environmental ennemy number one by The Economist years ago.
A strong economic business case
Fortunately, coal production and consumption have already been in steep decline in both the US and the EU as alternatives have become cheaper in the past ten years. Now, installing new wind turbines or solar farms is cheaper than keeping coal fired plants, as per the investment bank Lazard. This basically kills the business case for coal.
In the United States, one utilities after the other is planning on switching off their coal-fired plants too as the dirty stuff is just too expensive to keep, even in Indiana. As a result, analysts now even predict a global peak coal by 2020. This takes into account China and India…
Even if now they are more people working in the wind or solar industries than in coal, a just transition away has to take care of the thousands of coal miners that are still working and either help them retire early or retrain in industries that are booming, such as wind, solar, other renewables and energy efficiency. Helping new industries settle in former coal regions will prevent economic collapse and civic unrest. This why both America and Europe have to plan in advance a progressive transition away from coal.
Sustainable and low carbon alternatives
So, would switching off all coal-fired plants lead to blackouts? No, as energy efficiency alone has a huge potential as specialists believe a factor five energy consumption reduction is not only credible but also feasible. Think about our old incandescent lightbulbs, old houses and gaz guzzlers… The EU is already consuming less energy than in 1990 despite almost three decades of economic growth, while in the US since 2007, energy consumption has decreased by 3.6% while GDP grew too.
Next up, the costs for wind and solar are rapidly falling globally as capacities soar. To BNEF the onshore wind levelized costs decreased by 50 percent since 2009 and the price of solar PV modules have been slashed by a massive 80 percent since 2008. As a result, grid parity is here or fast approaching. Meanwhile, solar and wind grow exponentially and so do jobs!
But this is not all as there are many solutions to when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine:
- Sustainable biogas from a variety of sources,
- Waste-to-energy plants as seen in China,
- Batteries (from ion lithium to flow cells…)
- Demand response technologies
- Renewables like geothermal or marine energies…
As you can see above, we won’t run anytime soon out of cheap and clean electricity as these technologies go mainstream…
Some pundits and analysts paid by special interests are more often than not propping up these solutions. As one can see, they are not our best interest to pursue.
But, whether it comes from fracking or from Russia, natural gas is simply not an alternative the US nor the EU can afford. Hydraulic fracturing is dangerous to our environment and health. Who wants arsenic in his/her drinking water? Or earthquakes? Likewise, depending from Russia is not a safe geopolitical bet for Europe as Putin could turn off the spigots leaving us cold in winter…
The costs of building new nuclear reactors have significantly increased since the catastrophe of Fukushima (Japan) in 2011. As a result very few reactors are being built and even nuclear advocates see a falling demand in the future. Are thorium or fusion credible solutions ? Perhaps in 10 or 20 years but we need to act NOW !
Coal is already not cost-competitive anymore compared to renewables. “Cleaning” it by compressing and sending the carbon dioxide underground would make it much more expensive. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is still not proven despite billions of dollars in Research and Development. If it ever works, by then solar, wind and batteries will be so cheap that nobody will want coal, clean or not…
The transition away from coal has already been taking place in both the United States and the European Union for at least a decade as cheaper and cleaner alternatives are now well in place. Hastening this transition could be done by making carbon taxes / tax and dividends more widespread and effective. Policies aimed at making carbon pollution already exist – RGGI in some US States and the ETS in the European Union – and are proving relatively effective.
Ending fossil fuels subsidies and divesting away from coal will put the final nails in the coffin. While fossil fuels subsidies still remain a shameful and wasteful reality, the divestment movement away from coal and other fossil fuels is a growing trend as almost 1,000 institutional investors having made the pledge to divest according to The Guardian.
Our future can be coal-free. The case is overwhelming. Now we need to make it happen! This is our generations’ moment to shine and show what we can do. This is our Apollo project, this is our Green New Deal!