GLASGOW, Scotland — Climate envoy John Kerry told the U.N. Climate Change Conference Tuesday that the United States would likely phase out coal power within the next nine years, but quitting coal may be tougher than he assumes.
“By 2030 in the United States, we won’t have any coal,” Kerry said during a press conference. “We will not have coal plants.”
A report released Thursday by Ember, an independent energy think tank, shows the U.S. is still among the world's top coal users.
The U.S. currently ranks fourth in terms of per capita coal use among the world's nations, according to the report, behind only Australia, South Korea and South Africa. The average U.S. citizen emits nearly three times the amount of carbon dioxide from coal as the world average. China is by far the biggest producer of coal, but with a population of over 1.4 billion people, it ranks fifth in per capita use.
For the past two weeks, coal has been depicted in Glasgow as public enemy No. 1 in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases in an effort to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5°C over preindustrial levels.
“Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with 1.5C goal,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has said of coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions.
During the first week of the conference, more than 40 countries signed on to an initiative led by the United Kingdom to phase out coal as an energy source over the next two decades. The U.S., where coal accounts for 19 percent of electricity generation, was not among them. Still, officials hailed the pledge, which was the first of its kind.
“The end of coal is in sight,” Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K. business and energy secretary, said in response to the pledge. “The world is moving in the right direction, standing ready to seal coal’s fate and embrace the environmental and economic benefits of building a future that is powered by clean energy.”
The U.S. did, however, join 19 nations in committing to stop financing coal-fired plants abroad by 2022.
Kerry’s remarks on the end of coal power in the U.S. may have a familiar political resonance in states that are still reliant on the fossil fuel. In the 2016 presidential campaign, then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton famously cheered the demise of coal.
“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” she said at a rally.
Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, pounced on the comment and made his support of coal power a central plank of his campaign, rushing out T-shirts, signs and baseball caps that read “Trump digs coal.”
U.S. consumption of coal continued to plummet throughout Trump’s term, however, falling to a 60-year low in 2020. But thanks to soaring gas prices, coal use is expected jump by 20 percent over the next year in the U.S., bringing with it a rise in carbon emissions. Although that may end up saving consumers money in the short term, climate hawks and officials at COP26 aren’t celebrating.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded in a statement to the Ember report on per capita coal use by calling out nations that continue to lag on transitioning away from it.
“If the world does not take the necessary steps to cut emissions and fund climate adaptation, the future will be bleak. There can be no place for coal when the potential of renewable energy is growing exponentially,” he said. “OECD countries including the U.S., Germany, South Korea and Japan need to align with the 2030 target to phase out coal entirely. This will be a true demonstration of global leadership.”
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