Finding Hope in the Decline of Coal
There may be as many as two billion habitable or earth-like ‘exoplanets’ in our galaxy. It would seem that the odds of encountering intelligent alien life are high. Yet we have yet to make first contact. That raises Enrico Fermi’s question: “Where is everybody?” One answer known as “the great filter” is that civilizations self-destruct once they reach a certain level of technological development. I can imagine God, eating popcorn, watching all these tragedies unfold – each in its unique way – as time and again supposedly smart creatures wink out of existence. Maybe this isn’t tragedy. Maybe it is all designed by a divine, morbid sense of humor.
When Donald Trump was elected to lead planet earth’s most powerful and wealthy nation, I could imagine God sitting up and paying attention. Here it comes – another one bites the dust! In their 2014 book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway don’t exactly predict Trump. But they do sketch a doomsday scenario where political leaders deny the urgency of climate change long enough to tip planetary physics into an unsustainable spiral of heat waves, droughts, famine, pestilence, sea-level rise, and general Armageddon. Trump’s policy of America first “energy dominance,” which is a love song to fossil fuels, is a perfect script for their story. Just when atmospheric carbon reaches dangerous levels, cue the administration that pulls the planet’s top polluter out of international climate treaties, claiming this is all a hoax. Now there’s a cosmic tragi-comedy worth watching!
But maybe something is wrong with the script. Despite a booming economy, US carbon dioxide emissions actually dropped during Trump’s first year in office. This suggests that we are achieving the holy grail of eco-modernism or green capitalism: decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth. Granted, the decrease in emissions is not nearly enough to cover the “emissions gap” between current trajectories and the widely shared goal of capping warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Yet if solar and wind prices keep plummeting and grid-scale battery technologies keep improving, then the gap will significantly shrink.
Coal, long America’s leading source of climate pollution, is dying a quick death despite Trump’s best efforts to prop it up. His most desperate ploy involved a big-government market intervention to subsidize coal. This was not only zany, but also hypocritical coming from the political party that is supposed to oppose subsidies and let free markets pick winners and losers. The plan was rejected.
More than half of the US coal fleet in 2010 is now either retired or slated for retirement. This includes retirements of massive coal plants in Texas, which is widely regarded as the place with an energy system closest to a free market ideal. Wind power is now the clear winner in Texas, despite the fact that its state legislature is ideologically opposed to renewables. Even if the Trump administration succeeds in dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan, we would still stay on target to meet its power plant emissions’ goals ten years early, because uneconomic coal plants are being shuttered. This means that even if the administration greases the wheels for coal leasing on federal lands, they are unlikely to get any customers. And despite a bump in 2017, coal exports are unlikely to grow, given that no new export facilities are planned.
The demise of coal was partially driven by cities and states as well as political efforts like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. But the biggest driver is capitalism, the most ruthless honey badger of them all. There was no political war against coal prior to Trump, which means politics can’t save coal. It’s not ideology; it’s the economy, stupid. There is a lesson here about the limited power of politics, even in the form of the US President, in the face of high-tech, global capitalism. I am sympathetic to those who decry capitalism on ecological grounds, but I am also starting to appreciate the power of free markets to eradicate antiquated technologies. I guess I’ll take some creative destruction if the other choice is a nostalgic return to the good old days of coal.
The decarbonization of the electricity sector in the US means that, for the first time since 1979, power plants are no longer the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions. Here is how capitalism might just save civilization. First, we get cheap, clean electricity. Then, we run everything on cheap, clean electricity. Right now, the transportation sector is the biggest carbon polluter in the US, and it is only 0.1% electrified. Getting all cars, trucks, and airplanes to somehow run on renewable electricity seems like a pipe dream.
But the story of solar and wind power should instruct us to loosen up our imaginative capacities. In 2017 renewables accounted for 94.7% of the net new volume of US electricity generation. Just fifteen year ago, renewables were at about 1%. What’s happening today in electricity generation – despite a President fighting to buck the trend – would have been pretty hard to believe just a short while ago. So, should we really doubt that transportation – a sector already set to be rocked by automation – might just be poised for a similar green revolution? Perhaps our civilization isn’t lost yet.