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Exploring Prospects for U.S. Coal Exports to China

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQS.org.

The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies. They are also the two largest producers and consumers of coal, and the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. In recent years, however, their paths on coal have started to diverge.

Over the last few years, coal consumption has dropped dramatically in the United States, mainly due to low natural gas prices. In response to weak domestic demand, the U.S. coal industry has been rushing to find its way out to the international market. Last year, U.S. coal exports hit a historical high of 114 million metric tons.

However, it is worth noting that the shift away from coal in the U.S. may not be permanent. As my colleague, Kristin Meek, pointed out in an earlier blog post, coal use in the U.S. power sector was on the rise again towards the end of 2012, likely driven by the new uptick in natural gas prices.

On the other side of the globe, China’s appetite for coal continues to grow. In response, Chinese power companies are looking to tap the international coal market for sources that are more reliable and cost competitive. Among those markets is the United States. In 2012, China imported 290 million metric tons of coal. China was the third largest destination for U.S. coal exports, behind the Netherlands and the U.K.

The Race Against Climate Change

This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Experts blog. It is a response to the question: "What's holding back energy and climate policy?"

We are in a race for sure, but it is not a race among various national issues. It’s a race to slow the pace of our rapidly changing climate. The planet is warming faster than previously thought, and we cannot afford to wait for national politics to align to make progress in slowing the dangerous rate of warming.

Recent events, like the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, propelled gun control front and center. Last year’s elections shifted the national conversation on immigration. Climate change, too, should demand the attention of our national leaders.

The evidence of climate change is clear and growing. In 2012, there were 356 all-time temperature highs tied or broken in the United States. As of March, the world had experienced 337th consecutive months (28 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. Global sea levels are rising and artic sea ice continues to shrink faster than many scientists had predicted.

There are indications that Americans are deepening their understanding about climate change, especially when it comes to its impacts. People are beginning to connect the dots around extreme weather events, rising seas, droughts and wildfires, which have been coming in increasing frequency and intensity in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that weather-related damages in the United States were $60 billion in 2011 alone.

New Data Reveals Rising Coal Use

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

Debunking 3 Myths About U.S. Emissions

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

The national conversation around climate change has resumed. In both the Inauguration and State of the Union addresses, President Obama devoted considerable time to the issue, including his declaration that “we must do more to combat climate change.”

For some, this call to action may come as a surprise, as multiple recent reports have hailed falling U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, found that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States dropped 13 percent over the past five years.

However, the story is not as simple as it seems. By taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the United States needs to do more to shift to a safer pathway.

Here are three popular misconceptions about U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and the underlying truth behind them:

How to Turn State of the Union Address Commitments into Real Climate Action

President Obama made it abundantly clear during the State of the Union address last night that he will direct his Administration to take on climate change. The president reiterated the urgency for action, citing climate impacts we’re already seeing like record high temperatures, heat waves, drought, wildfires, and floods. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science--and act before it’s too late.”

The president urged Congress to rise to the challenge by pursuing a “bipartisan, market-based solution,” but he also noted that the Administration will take action—with or without Congress. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” the president said.

This statement is especially significant because the Administration can take meaningful actions right now even without new legislation. WRI recently released a report detailing the immediate steps federal agencies can take to combat climate change. The four greatest opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term include:

Can The U.S. Get There From Here?

The WRI report, "Can The U.S. Get There From Here?" examines pathways for United States greenhouse gas reductions that can be taken at the federal and state levels using existing authorities.

New Report Identifies Pathways for U.S. Administration to Reduce Emissions

Franz Litz, Executive Director of Pace Law School's Energy and Climate Center, also contributed to this post.

WRI just released a new report that answers the important question: Is the United States on track to meet its climate change commitments?

The report, Can the U.S. Get there from Here? Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, looks at whether the U.S. Administration--without congressional action--can meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (This is a goal the United States committed to in 2009.)

According to our research, the United States is not yet on track to meet the 17 percent target. However, the country can get there using existing federal laws, provided that the Administration takes ambitious action. We also found that states can play a significant role in reducing GHG emissions and can help supplement federal action.

This report is a legal and technical analysis that explores three levels of ambition for the Administration: “lackluster,” “middle of the road,” and “go-getter.” These scenarios are based on an extensive review of the technical literature on what is possible. The interactive graphic below highlights what can be accomplished through federal action under these scenarios.

Copy the embed code to use this infographic on your own site.

How Climate Change Impacts America’s Energy Infrastructure

As we’ve seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, epic drought, and wildfires, climate change visibly impacts lives and livelihoods throughout the United States. Global warming’s effects extend beyond people, wildlife, and ecosystems, though: They’re threatening America’s energy infrastructure.

Today, I testified on this very subject before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing entitled “American Energy Security and Innovation: An Assessment of North America’s Energy Resources.” I highlighted the energy risks and opportunities climate change presents, the role that clean energy should play, and actions Congress can take to mitigate global warming’s threats. Excerpts from the testimony are included below, or you can download my full testimony.

Climate Change Threatens Energy Infrastructure

Climate instability directly affects the future security of the U.S. energy sector. For example:

  • Each successive decade in the last 50 years has been the warmest on record globally, and according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, average temperatures will continue to rise. Energy demand is directly impacted by these temperature increases. A recent study in Massachusetts estimates that rising temperatures could increase demand for electricity in the state by 40 percent by 2030.

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