Analysis: Will US emissions rise again?

Are the US about to increase it’s use of coal?


By Anders Lorenzen


The US have lately applauded themselves for going in the right direction on climate as a switch from coal to gas in power plants as well as increasing their renewable energy output have lowered their CO2 emissions.


But now worryingly new details from the World Resource Institute (WRI) suggests that emissions could be on the rise again as the trend is turning around. Due to an increase in gas prices, power plants are set to go back to cheap and abundant coal which is also the most potent greenhouse gas.


So what can be done to prevent that happening and is Obama willing to show political muscle to make sure that the US emissions continue to decline.

Carbon Tax
We have seen in Europe that emissions have risen due to an increase in coal use. This has primarily happened due to an ineffective Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which operates in the EU. Due to an all time low carbon price, lingering at around €5 per tonne of CO2 emitted, this has failed to make coal more expensive to burn than gas, resulting in an increase in coal use and therefore also an increase in CO2 emissions. The EU is currently working to fix this but until they do, the most potent greenhouse gas coal will be cheaper to burn than gas which is the least potent greenhouse gas. Using the EU as an example Obama could make a strong case for a continuing reduction of greenhouse gasses by enforcing a carbon tax. Such tax was actually proposed by Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders in February. The big question though is if it will make its way through the House and Senate.

Renewables
Renewable energy is continuing to make headway in the US and Obama used the argument that in his term he has doubled renewable energy capacity alongside natural gas for the reasons behind US emissions reductions. Earlier this year, the senate extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) which analysts have said is a victory for renewable energy and wind power in particular. In the first quarter of 2013 42% of all new energy capacity added in the US have been renewables.

Energy Efficiency
On energy efficiency Obama has also introduced new efficiency standards for the automobile industry, this will largely contribute to emissions reductions.

Conclusion

It will be a massive own goal for Obama were the US emissions to rise and it would make all Obama’s arguments about acting on climate change hard for him to back up. He would no doubt do everything he could to prevent this happening. He will keep on a more aggressive note, continue to back low carbon sources which will include nuclear. But ultimately it will be down to actions of individual states both for mining coal and burning it. Coal-rich states have the power to legislate this. Even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have proposed regulations for new coal-fired power plants this will be wrangled back and forward in the House and the Senate before it will go through, but the real beast would be to regulate existing coal-fired power plants, which is still to be proposed by the EPA.

Subedited by Charlotte Paton

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