More than 85 percent of the world’s population now has electricity, up from just 75 percent in 1994, presenting a carbon dioxide emissions challenge for people concerned about global warming. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only the war-torn nations of Libya and Angola have experienced declining electrification rates since 1994.
During the first 16 years of this century, developing nations have driven a dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions. Global emissions have risen nearly 40 percent, yet emissions have declined in the United States and Europe. China was the primary driver of global emissions from 2000 through 2014, but Chinese emissions have leveled off during the past three years.
A continued transition from coal to natural gas power in the United States will help mitigate global emissions growth, but the primary driver of future global emissions will be the energy mix in developing nations. As more people in developing nations gain access to electricity, the question is what form will that electricity take? Environmental activist groups would like to impose wind and solar power on developing nations, but that is little more than wishful thinking. As India Additional Secretary Susheel Kumar pointed out at the 2015 Paris climate talks, developing nations cannot afford – and will not commit to – expensive, unreliable wind and solar power.
The challenge for third world nations may not be as difficult as it first appears. India has announced that nuclear power will be the backbone of its plan to produce 40 percent of its power from carbon-free sources by 2030. In poorer developing nations, inexpensive coal – provided largely by Russia, Australia, and China – is the power source of choice. However, American-exported natural gas can replace coal and minimize emissions growth in developing nations.
Domestic political opposition to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities has stunted American natural gas exports. Only one LNG export facility – as Sabine Pass, Louisiana – is currently in operation. However, the Trump administration appears committed to supporting the construction of new facilities.
Developing nations are currently choosing coal over natural gas because natural gas produced by other nations is much more expensive than U.S. natural gas and much more expensive than coal. Russia leads the world in natural gas exports, yet Russian natural gas is twice as expensive as U.S. natural gas. The U.S. natural gas revolution has not translated to other nations because other nations are not well suited to fracking. America stands poised to transform power generation in third world nations from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas if American policymakers simply remove political impediments to natural gas exports.
American natural gas exports will advance two important goals: bringing foreign dollars into the United States and reducing global energy emissions. The United Nations, its global bureaucracy, and most of its member nations have signed on to the Paris climate accord just as they signed on to the Kyoto Protocol 20 years ago. Yet words and promises only go so far when so many people in developing nations crave affordable energy. Global emissions skyrocketed during the past 20 years despite Kyoto, just as global emissions will skyrocket during the next 20 years despite Paris, unless tangible steps are taken to provide developing nations with affordable low- or zero-emissions power sources. American carbon dioxide emissions have fallen during the era of Kyoto because of natural gas power’s market-share gains at the expense of coal. If environmentalists hope to see Paris create better global emissions results than Kyoto, they should enthusiastically embrace the American natural gas revolution and encourage American natural gas exports.
The world will continue to gain greater access to electricity, which is a highly desirable development. Whether that will translate to continued rapid growth in global carbon dioxide emissions will depend on what power sources will fuel the developing world. Blanket opposition to nuclear power and natural gas will ensure developing nations choose coal power. Better options exist, and U.S. energy producers are well-positioned to supply those better energy options.
[This article first appeared at Forbes.com.]