Liberals and environmental activists have convinced most Americans that coal is a dirty word.
President Joe Biden seems to be on the same page. Campaigning for the White House, Biden pledged, “I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuels.”
While privileged elites in places such as New York, Washington, D.C., and California may call coal “dirty,” many others see coal as a means of heat and survival. Despite the Biden administration’s focus on electric vehicles, wind energy, and solar panels, most of the world is still using coal to power their lives. A lot of it.
In 1985, according to Our World Data, coal accounted for 37.94% of the world’s electricity production. In 2021, it accounted for 36.49%.
Today, 770 million people live without access to electricity, mostly in Africa and Asia. That’s roughly twice the population of the United States. Those same places also have rapidly growing populations, meaning they’ll need more, not less electricity. Energy demand is going to double, triple, and quadruple in some of these regions as they plug in to the 21st century, requiring a rapid build-out of new electricity sources.
These economies are not as strong as most of the industrialized world, so they are going to choose the most affordable, reliable energy option available. Coal is often the top choice in both of those categories. India, for example, has nearly doubled its domestic coal production in the last decade. It doesn’t have much natural gas, but it’s sitting on the fifth-largest coal reserve in the world. Indonesia is made up of highly populated islands in Southeast Asia that are rich in coal . Where there aren’t people, there is a rainforest, which means wind and solar are less than ideal.
China, of course, is far from a climate warrior.
Between 1999 and 2019, its greenhouse gas emissions tripled , accounting for 27% of all global emissions in 2019 — more than the entire developed world combined. While President Xi Jinping claims to support the goal of carbon neutrality, the country continues to bring massive new coal plants online and finance new coal plants abroad. Power shortages in China will only encourage Xi to keep up this coal-focused effort. While developing nations would love clean energy sources, their top priority is getting electricity turned on. So cheap, outdated, and “dirty” coal plants, financed by China, are what they often choose.
Whether you love or hate this fact, it’s the reality.
Coal is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Plants in India, China, and Indonesia won’t disappear after they’ve been paid for and built. But here’s the good news: That’s OK. It’s not coal that causes climate change but rather the carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning it for power. And coal plants can be made cleaner with U.S.-led innovation.
Technology to capture the carbon dioxide produced by coal is seeing great momentum from policymakers, with tax incentives, research and development dollars, and energy developers who are actually building projects. Carbon capture technology is being used for a natural gas power plant in California , a coal power plant in North Dakota , a cement facility in Colorado , and an LNG terminal in Louisiana , to name a few. It could quickly become a booming industry. In addition to being an asset for the economy and jobs, this will go a long way toward reducing carbon emissions globally — not just in the U.S.
The situation presents the U.S. with a win-win. By pioneering carbon capture technology, America could develop a profit-selling technology for the coal boom in places such as Africa and Asia while reducing emissions.
The Biden administration has very little to show in terms of wins on climate change policy for its Earth Day events this Friday. Instead of focusing on things like electric vehicles, which are only a small piece of the climate solution, the administration should highlight the potential that American carbon capture technology presents to address emissions on a global scale.
It might not be as flashy as seeing the president driving a new Ford electric truck, but anyone who cares about the climate should know better than to get distracted by shiny objects.
“Clean coal” might sound like an oxymoron, but for the global climate challenge we face, it’s precisely the solution. In honor of Earth Day, President Biden should clean up coal’s dirty reputation.