Ripple Effects

Owing to plentiful, domestic natural gas and stricter pollution regulations, the United States has lessened its dependence upon coal as an energy source, and continues to do so more and more each year. This, along with other measures, equates to decreases in greenhouse gas emissions year by year, something we can easily describe as a success. As reported in one of our earlier articles, however, this reduction in coal means a reduction in its mining, and, by extension, job losses for workers in the industry. As we concluded, “We need to dig deeper into the potentially damaging effects a transition away from coal could have on its constituents,” as a national trend to reduce dependence on coal undeniably would have social cost implications for those who depend upon it.

But the story of the United States’ falling dependence upon coal also has a considerable international side narrative. Though the U.S. mines and burns much of its coal domestically, it also exports much of this mined coal elsewhere. The laws of supply and demand dictate that as the United States has transitioned to natural gas, reducing domestic demand, exported U.S. coal has fallen in price, making it an attractive option for foreign countries. Of course, global warming does not work compartmentally; emissions in one country invariable affect another. Our carbon footprint, getting smaller each year, becomes less of an unmitigated success and the story becomes more complicated. We are left to wonder: Is the country derailing decarbonization measures in other countries? Are we at fault?

Let’s first look at Germany, a country known for its rigorous campaigns in green energy. Shaken by the disaster in Fukushima in 2011, Germany vowed to end its use of nuclear power completely. Given that the country’s relied on nuclear power for over a quarter of its energy generation, this was and continues to be a sizable endeavor. And, although the country has a significant commitment to renewable wind and solar, these sources are pricey, and therefore difficult to use as a replacement for nuclear at such a scale. To fill in the newly-vacated energy gap, Germany has turned to lignite, supplied largely by coal from the United States. As a result, many plants in the country consumed more lignite last year than they had in the 1980s. This isparticularly worrying, given that both labor and environmental regulations were much more lax in that decade.

The United States may not be completely at fault, but rather a piece of a more complicated puzzle. Many blame the ease with which American coal exports have entered the borders of Germany and other European countries on the area’s cap-and-trade system. This “centerpiece of Europe’s green policies” charges industries a permit to emit greenhouse gases. This curiously no longer acts as a disincentive, though, because industrial manufacture fell dramatically during the economic crisis, so emissions remain under the instilled cap. Energy suppliers, forced to make decisions decades in advance, flock away from investments in natural gas to investments in coal, which, because of the falling price per ton of carbon, is a more profitable option.

Fortunately, because of an environmentalist push for a more ambitious cap-and-trade system to meet new emissions goals for the future, it is theorized that this trend towards coal will not be permanent for Germany. Unfortunately, however, Germany is not the only destination where these coal exports go.

Europe Coal

A map of where U.S. coal exports wind up from

A large portion of the coal sent overseas finds itself in other countries in Europe, and countries on almost every other continent. Especially worrying is that, in some cases, these countries have less stringent environmental standards than the United States. These governments may be resistant to tackling global warming, and, unlike Germany, may not have plans to shrink their carbon footprint throughout the coming decades.

This issue is not only a case of political over-simplification, but also a perfect example of the lack of global communication regarding energy policy. While President Obama’s deputy climate adviser states that “our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side,” there is no admission that US exports now comprise a tenth of the global market, and that coal usage has risen more than any other fossil fuel in 2013.

As the case of U.S. coal exports makes clear, it is not enough for a single country to take action to reduce carbon emissions within their borders.  Though the United States has done so in its transition to natural gas and lowering of its own emissions, the country’s coal exports—a part of its global economic web—present detrimental, rippling effects. These ripple effects underline the importance of developing responses to climate change that are both comprehensive and coordinated across international boundaries, rather than balkanized, country-level responses.   Image Credit: David Coil via Ground Truth Trekking


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