By Michael Grunwald
Global warming is a terribly complex problem. It’s really a slew of problems: carbon problems and methane problems, electricity problems and fuel problems, sprawl problems and deforestation problems, supply problems and demand problems. We waste too much power, we eat too much meat, we drive too much, we fly too much, we plug in too many gadgets, and we get way too much of our energy from fossil fuels. The expansion of energy options in the developing world, a godsend for billions of people, will further complicate many of those problems.
It can all seem overwhelming. But for the next decade or so, America’s main challenge is relatively simple, because our biggest problem is also our most solvable problem. That problem is coal. It’s our filthiest source of energy, producing one fourth of our emissions and three fourths of our emissions from electricity, despite producing less than 40 percent of our electricity. We need to burn a lot less of it.
This is why President Obama’s new effort to limit carbon emissions at power plants is so important—and, as I wrote last week, so potentially disappointing. Coal provides our best opportunity for major short-term emissions cuts; our coal plants have already slashed generation by 20 percent since 2005, and another 10 percent of the U.S. coal fleet is already scheduled for retirement. But Obama’s Clean Power Plan only envisions a 30 percent overall drop in coal power from 2005 levels by 2030, which would barely move the needle. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did suggest to me that her agency’s proposed regulations will do much more than than her agency’s forecasts imply, but there’s not much in the Clean Power Plan that would suggest a major crackdown on coal.
Instead, the EPA projects that we would still get more than 30 percent of our power from coal in 2030. That would be a catastrophe. Coal plants emit twice as much carbon as natural gas, and infinitely more carbon than wind, solar, nuclear and other zero-emissions sources of power. They are also public health nightmares, fouling our air with mercury, soot, and other toxics, shrouding cities in smog and triggering asthma attacks among children. And the coal we burn in our power plants—unlike the petroleum we burn in our vehicles—can be easily and inexpensively replaced without changing our behaviors or disrupting our economy.