Drop in coal use drives U.S. greenhouse reductions

November 2, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Here’s the latest from Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute:

Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by 6 percent. The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years. And this is only the beginning.

The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal because of its effects on human health.

And here’s more:

In August, the American Economic Review—the country’s most prestigious economics journal—published an article that can only be described as an epitaph for the coal industry. The authors conclude that the economic damage caused by air pollutants from coal burning exceeds the value of the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal fails the cost-benefit analysis even before the costs of climate change are tallied.

They also report:

Even as coal plants are closing, the use of wind, solar, and geothermally generated electricity is growing fast. Over the last four years, more than 400 wind farms—with a total generating capacity of 27,000 megawatts—have come online, enough to supply 8 million homes with electricity. (See data.) Nearly 300,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects are in the pipeline awaiting access to the grid.

They conclude:

With emissions from coal burning heading for a free fall as plants are closed, and those from oil use also falling fast—both are falling faster than emissions from natural gas are ramping up—U.S. carbon emissions are falling.

We are now looking at a situation where the 7 percent decline in carbon emissions since the 2007 peak could expand to 20 percent by 2020, and possibly even to 30 percent. If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate.

4 Responses to “Drop in coal use drives U.S. greenhouse reductions”

  1. Jeff Young says:

    Lester attributes the (slight) decline of coal to the Sierra Club’s activity but I suspect he’s missing a more obvious reason, and that’s the rise of gas. He notes the 6% increase in CO2 emissions from natural gas but apparently fails to make the link: electric utilities are switching fuels as the boom in unconventional shale gas drives down prices and contributes to a global glut of gas. That’s the real game changer.

  2. Dave Bassage says:

    I suspect you’re right, Jeff.

    There are certainly legitimate concerns associated with gas extraction and processing, but it is the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels, and will certainly play an important role during these next few decades of transitional period until we ultimately are able to transition to a fully renewable energy status.

    The encouraging thing is that we’re finally shrinking our carbon footprint, which can only help. A sustainable future is our only option if we want any future at all. It’s good to see we’ve started inching in that direction.

  3. Lew Baker says:

    I agree with both Jeff and Dave. As I have written before, coal will be increasingly replaced by natural gas. Just one of the benefits of using gas is that the plants can power up and down as needed, which is a flexibility that coal does not have. Non-fossil fuel energy sources, like wind and solar do not produce at capacity all the time, so as these power sources increasingly come on line, the gas fired plants will continue to be used to meet gaps in power production.

    Nat gas produces less CO2 than coal, and wind and solar produce none. CO2 emmissions, in the USA at least, may decline quicker than most people have anticipated. Unfortunately, in the highly populated developing countries, CO2 production is growing fast, as their emerging middle classes buy cars, air conditions, and all the rest of modern comforts.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment … wondering what your thoughts are on the back-and-forth in the scientific literature about whether a fuel switch from coal to natural gas is as big of a game changer as conventional wisdom has taught us.

    We’ve written about these studies a little on a separate blog. This post includes links to previous posts, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/watchdog/2011/09/09/more-questions-about-climate-benefits-of-gas-switch/


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