The reign of 'King Coal' may be coming to an end. What's next?

Aug 9, 2015

To avoid catastrophic global warming, scientists say the world must drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions — and that means slashing the use of fossil fuels. New numbers indicate that the change is already underway.

For the first time in history natural gas is now generating more electrical power than coal in America — a major milestone on the way to rebuilding the energy economy.

In addition, a recent report finds that switching to renewal energy sources to save the climate can also save money. Since 2012, the nine Eastern states that use market-based incentives to reduce carbon emissions from power plants have reaped $1.3 billion in economic benefits and saved customers a half billion dollars, analysts say.

Does this mean the era of 'King Coal' is over? Yes, says Joe Romm, scientist, writer, and head of the blog Climate Progress.

“I think the age of coal is clearly coming to an end,” Romm says. "It’s not going to end tomorrow, and it’s not going to end in 10 years, but it's coming to an end. Over the course of the lifetime of many [of us], the world is going to use substantially less and less coal — ultimately going pretty close to zero.”

We’re still in the beginning phases of this transition, Romm says, but over the next 10 to 30 years, he expects to see continued explosive growth of wind and solar power, batteries and electric cars, all of which will result in a move off of carbon entirely by 2050 or shortly thereafter.

Even ten years ago this idea seemed unthinkable. What has happened?

“A lot of things have been pushing coal out of the marketplace,” Romm says. “Renewable energy, particularly wind, has come down sharply in price and exploded in growth. Energy efficiency has slowed the growth of electricity demand. The shale gas revolution has brought down the price of natural gas, and gas is [increasingly] substituting for coal.”

Though the shift away from coal to natural gas can vastly improve public health, and even save lives, natural gas, which is mostly methane, has its own set of challenges. Leaks from natural gas production and distribution are still a serious problem.

“Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and, over a 20-year period, it can be 80 to 90 times as powerful at trapping heat as carbon dioxide,” Romm explains. “So, even a small number of leaks can undermine the benefit of replacing a carbon-intensive coal plant with a much more efficient and cleaner natural gas plant.”

The US government, some power companies and environmental groups are working to reduce these leaks, but others recommend the economy move straight to renewables and use natural gas only as a supporting or backup technology. Either way, natural gas is only a short-term solution, Romm says.

“There is no question that if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change we are going to have to get off of fossil fuels and go down to zero carbon emissions — and that means getting off of coal, oil and natural gas sometime in the second half of the century," he insists.

While here at home, coal may slowly be on the way out, coal exports from the United States to other countries present another serious problem. Simply not burning it here, but selling it to other people who do burn it doesn't help, he emphasizes.

What’s more, critics say, the United States government practically gives away coal from public lands in the West. “It's really kind of obscene,” Romm agrees, "that coal mining in the West is ridiculously cheap compared to the world market price of coal. Taxpayers are getting heavily ripped off: a) to the benefit of coal companies; and b) to the detriment of the environment. So it's kind of a lose-lose for Americans across the board.”

However, many other countries have begun to realize they need to move away from coal pretty quickly, Romm says. The European Union has been aggressively reducing carbon pollution and has recently proposed a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels as part of their commitment for the upcoming Paris climate talks in December.

China, which has been responsible for 80 percent of global growth in coal demand since the year 2000, last November announced a major deal with the United States to peak its carbon dioxide emissions in 2030. Shortly afterward, China said it would peak its coal use in 2020.

Romm says he was recently in China and found that “a great many people think that coal is starting to peak in China right now.” “It's been declining in the last year or two,” he says. “I think it's safe to say that the era of very rapid global growth driven by China is now over.”

“I am hopeful that as countries like China step up to the plate and say they’re going to move off of coal, the export market is going to dry up,” Romm says. Hopefully, he says, developing nations such as India will combine some coal with a transition towards clean energy.

But ultimately all nations will need to face a single reality, Romm says: everyone is going to zero in the second half of the century whatever their current plan is now.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.