Carbon isn’t just America’s problem
Canada has 35 million people. Africa has just over 1 billion. But rather remarkably, Canada consumes about as much energy as all of Africa, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Power Hungry, a provocative look at the global energy industry. As African economies grow, however, it is a safe bet that African energy consumption will grow with it, just as energy consumption has increased in China and India and around the world as hundreds of millions have escaped poverty. And that is the key challenge facing those who hope to do something about carbon emissions, including President Obama.
Despite the fact that less than a third of U.S. voters believe that climate policy ought to be a high priority, according to a Pew survey conducted in January, the president gave a sweeping climate policy address earlier this week. During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney tried to gain traction by claiming that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal,” a charge the president and his allies adamantly rejected. Yet there is no denying that President Obama has backed regulations that are making it more expensive to extract and burn coal, as Juliet Eilperin recently documented in the Washington Post. The really new development this week is that while the president had been working to make new coal plants unviable, he is now seeking to impose regulations on existing coal plants that will either lead to steep penalty payments or force premature shutdowns.
Though these steps are widely resented in coal country, they are accelerating a trend that has been driven in large part by the collapse in domestic natural gas prices, which in turn has been driven by a technological revolution in the development of shale gas resources. In 2012, the same year Romney and Obama were debating the war on coal, U.S. coal use fell by 12 percent. Not coincidentally, the International Energy Agency has reported that between 2006 and 2011, U.S. carbon emissions had fallen by 7.7 percent, the steepest reduction for any country or region in the world. To some extent, this decrease in emissions reflected a sluggish economy. But it also reflected the shale boom. The president’s war on coal is not without costs, and Republicans, particularly those representing coal states, will fight it vigorously. But for now, at least, it is a war that U.S. energy consumers can afford, and it will contribute to America’s ongoing decarbonization. The deeper challenge for the president and his allies is that while domestic coal use is declining, global coal use is increasing at a stunning pace.
Right now, global energy use is in the neighborhood of 1.5 exajoules per day, the energy equivalent of 250 million barrels of oil per day. Bryce makes this number easier to comprehend by comparing it to Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production of 8.2 million barrels per day. Rather than talk about 1.5 exajoules per day, he says that the world is now consuming 30 Saudi Arabias daily. And of these 30 Saudi Arabias, 26 are derived by hydrocarbons, including 10 from oil, nine from coal, and seven from natural gas. Hydropower accounts for two Saudi Arabias, nuclear accounts for 1.5, and non-hydro renewable energy accounts for no more than half of a Saudi Arabia.
But as countries around the world climb the economic ladder, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that global energy demand will, as Bryce puts it, increase by another 15 Saudi Arabias to reach a total of 45 Saudi Arabias. And if current trends hold, coal will play an enormous role in meeting this new demand. Unlike oil, coal is embedded around the world in relatively easy-to-access deposits. While there are shale gas resources in countries like China, the technology and the know-how needed to access it are not as readily available outside of the U.S. and a handful of other affluent countries, and so the fact that coal still has the upper hand should come as no surprise.
If our goal is to reduce carbon emissions, it is important to first recognize that the countries where emissions are rising fastest are full of poverty-stricken people who are not prepared to sacrifice economic growth to meet a goal that seems very abstract. The best way forward is to develop cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal-fired electricity generation that can be quickly and profitably deployed. Alas, this isn’t the kind of thing that can be achieved by government fiat. Among environmentalists, there is a consensus that imposing a steep price on carbon emissions, whether through a cap-and-trade program (CTP) or a carbon tax, will spur innovation. Evidence from existing CTPs suggests that they instead lead firms to deploy the best off-the-shelf technologies to reduce emissions. This approach may well make a dent in national emissions, and that is no small thing, but it seems unlikely to yield the kind of cheaper-than-coal technologies that could transform the global energy landscape.
President Obama seems to recognize the importance of energy research, and he has certainly devoted substantial resources to it. The bad news is that these resources are being wasted in a U.S. Department of Energy that devotes most of its time and energy to cleaning up nuclear sites and managing nuclear weapons, and that splits up basic and applied research in painfully counterproductive ways. Recently, the Clean Air Task Force and the Energy Innovation Reform Project released “Putting Energy Innovation First,” a comprehensive proposal to reform the U.S. Department of Energy.* Among other things, the two groups call on the DOE to hive off its environmental cleanup and defense missions to other agencies to focus exclusively on spurring energy innovation, and to give DOE laboratories the autonomy they need to do their work effectively.
So far, “Putting Energy Innovation First” has fallen on deaf ears. This is despite the fact that it is a natural fit for reform-minded Republicans, who are wary of command-and-control regulation and big spending increases, yet who recognize that government can play a constructive role in energy innovation. But for GOP candidates looking to separate themselves from the pack, and to counter Democratic charges of know-nothingism, it has much to recommend it.
*Correction: This piece originally misstated the name of the Energy Innovation Reform Project.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama wipes his forehead as he speaks about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change while at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing