Obama’s Climate Summit Missed a Big Chance to Reduce Global Warming

Obama’s Climate Summit Missed a Big Chance to Reduce Global Warming

© Suzie Wong / Reuters

Not since the Hindenburg disaster has hot air created such excitement. Cheerleading for the recently concluded Paris climate accord was deafening – mainly by those who led the charge. Americans weren’t paying much attention; it turns out they’re more worried about terrorism (and twelve other issues) than climate change. Poor President Obama -- it’s as if he gave a party and nobody came.

In their haste to make history in Paris, negotiators from around the world avoided some important issues, like how to actually reduce carbon emissions. The resulting agreement contains considerable discussion about mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but not too much about actually preventing climate change. (Maybe that was drowned out by the copious amounts of excellent Bordeaux apparently dished out by the obliging French hosts.)

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For instance, instead of quarreling over which rich countries should shell out tens of billions of dollars to poor countries especially disadvantaged by global warming, an issue as yet unsettled, the participants could have pushed for an all-out effort to make burning coal cleaner. They could have prioritized making funding available to emerging nations for retrofitting older coal-fired power plants and for replacing antiquated facilities with newer more efficient ones. They might also have dedicated some monies to pursuing research on carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is deemed key to reducing emissions from future coal-fired power generation.  

 Why is this important? Because one inconvenient truth is that coal is expected to be the bedrock fuel of emerging nations like India for decades to come. Coal currently provides 41 percent of the world’s electricity. There is enough coal left in the ground to supply demand for over 200 years.  According to the World Coal Association, “By 2040 installed power generation capacity from coal will reach 2843GW compared to 1805GW today.”  The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects a 43 percent increase in its use from 2000 to 2020. Coal is not going away.

A 2015 report, “The Truth about China,” states that more than 2,400 coal plants are under construction around the world – many in China, India, and Japan. Even Germany, long-time disciple to climate improvement, has been building new coal-fired plants, in order to back out their use of nuclear power. Last year, 44 percent of Germany’s electricity came from coal – more than in any other EU country.

Coal is cheap, plentiful, and dirty -- even when cleaned up in compliance with U.S. regulations. But technological advancements like scrubbers and catalysts now make it possible to remove nearly all sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate emissions from the coal-burning process. The remaining problem is carbon dioxide, and there is progress on that front, too. New coal plants emit some 25-33 percent less carbon emissions than older facilities. That fact should prod countries like China, which have substantial numbers of old inefficient plants in operation, to retrofit those facilities or replace them with newer equipment.   

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More important, carbon capture and storage advancements (CCS) (and some other technologies like gasification) could render coal an acceptable fuel in the decades ahead. Theoretically, CCS technology gets rid of 90 percent of the greenhouse gases released from burning coal, by collecting and burying them deep underground. In 2014, the world’s first commercial-scale coal power plant using CCS opened in Canada.  More recently, a clean coal plant operated by Mississippi Power has run hugely over budget and provided grist for those challenging the realism of clean coal. Still, other ventures are in the works in the U.S., China and the U.K.  The future of CCS is still uncertain, but given the prospective ongoing use of coal, developing the technology should be a high priority.  It is not. To date only about one percent of investments dedicated to clean energy around the world has gone to CCS.  

In its 2014 Energy Technology Perspectives, the International Energy Agency reported, “CCS is advancing slowly, due to high costs and lack of political and financial commitment.” In 2007, the EU promised construction of up to 12 commercial-scale CCS power plants within 8 years -- not one has been built. China has been investing in clean coal technology, but has reported few breakthroughs. So far, only one 110 MW commercial-scale CCS power plant has been built in the world, the Boundary Dam project in Canada. That compares to global installed wind and solar capacity of more than 550,000 MW.   

The lack of clean coal breakthroughs is not surprising -- the environmental movement has become as much engaged in attacking fossil fuels as it is eager to combat climate change.  May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, said of the Paris accord, “This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels.” This is her priority, and she is not alone.  In the United States, oil and gas companies have created a true energy revolution, turning upside-down expectations that our domestic supplies would soon be depleted. Thanks to fracking, the U.S. now has enormous natural gas supplies, enough to last a century, even with rising demand. As a result, and due to warmer weather, natural gas prices so low that our energy mix is shifting away from coal. 

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Because of that fortuitous chain of events, U.S. carbon emissions have been declining. Natural gas is cleaner than coal and benefits our environment. You don’t hear about that from President Obama, who talks about “big fossil fuel interests” like they are a villainous underclass. You also won’t hear it from the likes of the Sierra Club. That organization initially signed onto the gas revolution, but ultimately could not agree to back our indigenous energy producers. Fossil fuels are politically anathema to the Left, no matter how beneficial to our economy.

The hostility to fossil fuels is not special to the U.S. In Germany, where fracking is illegal, significant natural gas reserves go untapped. The country imports 90 percent of its natural gas; 39 percent comes from Russia, which has been known to use its gas exports as a geopolitical weapon.  It makes your head spin. https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-dependence-imported-fossil-fuels

The Paris climate agreement fell short. Vague promises and hopes that countries like China and Russia will act against their self-interest are a fool’s game. Better to develop realistic solutions, like cleaning up coal.