When it comes to coal power, no country can compare to China. China produces more than twice as much coal power as the United States. Indeed, China produces nearly as much coal power as the rest of the world combined. And without the environmental laws that exist in the United States, each unit of Chinese coal power produces much more pollution than the same unit of American coal power.
If a goal of American environmental policy is to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – and we can assign whatever high or low importance to this goal as we like – then we must figure out a way to reduce domestic and foreign reliance on coal power. Up until a decade ago, when coal power was significantly less expensive than competing power sources, weaning the American economy off coal power would have been a costly proposition. But as natural gas power has become consistently less expensive than coal power, coal has lost its place as the leading source of American electricity generation. As natural gas power replaces coal power, American carbon dioxide emissions have already declined by more than 10%, and there is room to reduce emissions even further. A more important question, though, is will China follow suit?
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Greg Goebel.
China doesn’t rely on so much coal power because its government enjoys imposing high energy costs and unbreathable air on its population. To the contrary, coal dominates Chinese power production because Chinese-produced natural gas remains much more expensive than coal power. Natural gas from the world’s leading exporter, Russia, also remains much more expensive than coal. Until an economic justification exists to transform Chinese electricity production from coal to natural gas, China will continue to produce more than twice as much coal power as America and nearly as much coal power as all other nations in the world combined. And for as long as that happens, carbon dioxide emissions reductions in the United States and elsewhere will have only marginal impact on global carbon dioxide emissions.
America’s transformation from coal power to natural gas power has lowered electricity prices because of America’s vast natural gas resources, amenable topography for natural gas extraction, and technological advances by American energy producers. Each of these factors has contributed to the decline in inflation-adjusted electricity prices during the past decade as natural gas power continues to replace coal power. These factors, however, have not translated to other countries. Russia leads the world in natural gas exports, yet Russian natural gas remains twice as expensive as American natural gas.
China will not reduce its coal power generation so long as the most affordable alternative – natural gas – remains so much more expensive than coal. Only by exporting low-cost American natural gas to China will China make any substantial reductions in its coal power generation.
China already imports American natural gas, but logistical problems keep our exports at a minimum. America currently has only one natural gas export terminal in operation. Political and – ironically – environmental objections have slowed government approval of additional proposed export terminals. Those obstacles are fading in impact, however, as a handful of new terminals are scheduled to become operational during the next decade.
Making a dent in Chinese coal power requires more than wishful thinking and appeals to Chinese altruism. Making a dent in Chinese coal power requires Chinese access to affordable natural gas. America has as much affordable natural gas as China needs. Now we just need the means and political acquiescence to ramp up our exports. And as soon as we do so, Chinese coal power and Chinese carbon dioxide emissions will decline dramatically.