Climate scientist John Christy states the common sense of the matter when he says, “If it’s not economically sustainable, it’s not sustainable.”
Why have carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions surged despite a quarter century of global warming advocacy?
Contrary to Al Gore, Tom Steyer, and IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri, the answer is not ‘lack of political will’ or ‘the Koch brothers.’ The root cause is far more fundamental: Commercial energy is essential to civilization, much of the world is energy poor, even in industrialized countries low- and middle-income households struggle with high energy costs, and zero-emission energy sources that are cheap, reliable, and scalable do not yet exist.
Consequently, a political movement bent on taxing, regulating, and mandating the world ‘beyond coal,’ ‘beyond petroleum,’ and ‘beyond gas’ is doomed to fail (although, sadly, it can do considerable economic damage before finally imploding).
A new report by Manhattan Institute scholar Robert Bryce explains by the numbers why the world is nowhere near ‘beyond coal.’ Policies aggressive enough to achieve IPCC and other popular CO2 reduction targets would inflict severe economic losses, rendering such policies unsustainable.
Bryce’s executive summary is short and to the point:
Since 1973, coal consumption has grown faster than any other form of energy. Growth in coal consumption has been critical in providing electricity access in developing countries.
Based on the results of three different estimates, this paper finds that between 1990 and 2010, about 830 million people—the vast majority in developing countries—gained access to electricity due to coal-fired generation. Indeed, roughly twice as many people gained access to electricity due to coal as due to natural gas; and for every person who obtained access to electricity over that period from non-hydro renewable sources, such as wind and solar, about 13 gained access due to coal.
Coal-fired-generation capacity continues to grow in wealthy countries, too. For electricity production, no other energy source can currently match the black fuel when it comes to cost, scale, and reliability. In all, more than 500 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity will likely be built worldwide by 2040. Given coal’s pivotal role in providing electricity to poor and wealthy countries alike, it is highly unlikely that global carbon-dioxide emissions will fall anytime soon.
Alternative energy advocates often note that in percentage terms, installed wind and solar capacity is growing faster than ‘conventional’ power sources. But that’s because wind and solar start from a much smaller base.
In sheer quantity terms, nations installed much more coal-fired than renewable electricity over the past decade:
For example, since 2003, global coal consumption has increased by about 24.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. In absolute terms, that was nine times faster than the growth seen in wind-energy consumption and 40 times that of solar energy.
In percentage terms, coal generation increased by only 3% in 2013. But in absolute terms, that increase “amounts to roughly 2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day of additional energy consumption,” dwarfing the combined increase in wind and solar power of about 620,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. “Thus, in one year, coal consumption jumped by three times the amount of growth that occurred in wind and solar combined.”
We hear a lot about fracking these days and North America is in the midst of an oil boom. Nonetheless, coal is still the fastest growing energy fuel on the planet:
Global coal use also continues to grow at a faster rate than both oil and natural gas. In 2013, coal use rose by about 50 percent more than the growth in petroleum and nearly three times the growth seen in natural gas.
Looking further back in history, one observes a similar story. Between 2003 and 2013, global coal consumption grew by nearly as much as the growth in oil and natural gas combined. Over that period, coal use increased by about 24.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. (Oil was up by 11 million barrels per day and natural gas by about 13.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.)
Coal’s contribution to global electricity supply is expected to increase substantially between now and 2040:
Electricity-poor countries, along with those that are electricity-rich, are currently building hundreds of gigawatts of new coal-fired electricity-generation capacity. The nine countries discussed in this paper—China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, and South Korea—are planning to build about 550 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity over the next two and a half decades. The vast majority of that, some 400 gigawatts, is planned for China.
For perspective, U.S. coal generation capacity now stands at about 300 gigawatts. So, over the next 25 years, the aforementioned nine countries are expected to add the equivalent of roughly 180% of current U.S. coal generation capacity.
What accounts for the coal rush? The biggest factor is the necessity for affordable, dependable, scalable power to eradicate energy poverty and support development. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) defines electricity access as 250 kilowatt-hours per year in rural areas and 500 kilowatt-hours in urban locations. That is way below levels industrial societies take for granted. “For comparison,” notes Bryce, “the average resident of France consumes over 7,100 kilowatt-hours per year.”
Although Germany (7.3 gigawatts), Russia (8 gigawatts), Japan (6 gigawatts), Republic of Korea (14 gigawatts), and Poland (1.8 gigawatts) plan to spend billions in coming years on new coal generation, most of the investment in new coal capacity will be in China (400 gigawatts by 2040) and India (90 gigawatts by 2018).
China’s per capita electricity consumption today (3,480 kilowatt-hours per year) is nearly five times greater than it was in 1994 (727 kilowatt-hours per year). Yet even though China’s GDP ($9.2 trillion) is nearly twice that of Japan’s, China’s per capita consumption is still less than half of Japan’s (7,200 kilowatt-hours per year). To achieve a first-world electric supply system, China over the next 25 years “is projected to add a new fleet of coal-fired generators that will be larger than America’s entire existing coal-fired capacity.”
In India, where 400 million people still lack access to electricity, Pakistan, and Indonesia, “dire electricity shortages and blackouts” impede or cripple development:
Urban areas in Pakistan routinely have blackouts lasting ten hours per day; rural areas often face power outages lasting 15 hours per day. Shortages of electricity are imposing heavy costs on the Pakistani economy—as much as $12.5 billion per year, or 6 percent of the country’s GDP—according to a 2013 study done by Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University.
Why are Germany, Japan, Russia, and Poland investing in coal? In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan is phasing out nuclear power, which prior to the disaster provided 30% of the country’s electricity. Germany, too, has committed to phase out nuclear power, and its annual $32 billion subsidy for renewable power imperils the competitiveness of German industry. Russia is building the world’s largest (8-gigawatt) coal power plant in order to sell electricity to China. Poland has abundant coal reserves and wants to become less dependent on Russian gas, especially after Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Bryce’s study has two main policy implications. One is that reducing global CO2 emissions 40-70% by 2050 — the ostensible goal of UN-sponsored climate treaty negotiations — is unattainable. Either negotiators won’t commit to it, or nations won’t enforce it:
Given coal’s irreplaceability in the global electricity-generation mix, there is little reason to expect significant reductions in global carbon-dioxide emissions over the next few decades. Even if policymakers are able to encourage (or even mandate) the use of advanced-combustion technologies in coal-fired-generation stations, continued growth in coal consumption makes it virtually certain that global emissions will continue rising. Projections from the EIA show that by 2040, global coal-related carbon-dioxide emissions will total nearly 21 billion tons per year, an increase of about 41 percent (or 6 billion tons) over 2013 levels.
The other implication is that EPA’s Clean Power Plan won’t make a dent on global coal consumption and emissions, and should be scrapped.
To read Bryce’s study in full, click on NOT BEYOND COAL How the Global Thirst for Low-Cost Electricity Continues Driving Coal Demand.