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The U.S. and coal — it's complicated

·Senior Editor
·3 min read
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GLASGOW, Scotland — President Biden has repeatedly stressed that the United States needs to ditch coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel of all, in order to combat climate change. But when, in an initiative led by the United Kingdom, more than 40 nations agreed at the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Thursday to phase out coal as an energy source over the next two decades, the U.S. was not one of them.

Among the nations to sign on to the commitment to phase out coal and quickly transition to renewable energy sources are Chile, Egypt, Morocco, Poland and Vietnam. The U.S., Australia, China and India did not sign the pledge.

"Today marks a milestone moment in our global efforts to tackle climate change as nations from all corners of the world unite in Glasgow to declare that coal has no part to play in our future power generation," Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K.'s secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, said in a statement.

While the United States was absent on this particular pledge on coal — which accounts for roughly 19 percent of the country's energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — it has been working at the conference, also known as COP26, to ensure that the world phases it out.

Biden pledged, for instance, that the U.S. would offer financing to help close "South Africa's coal plants ahead of schedule." Approximately 70 percent of South Africa's energy comes from coal, and the U.S. joined Britain, the European Union, France and Germany in committing financing of $8.5 billion to help it transition to renewables.

The president has also pledged to eliminate all carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector by 2035 and committed at COP26 to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of next year.

While former President Donald Trump enthusiastically promoted coal, holding campaign rallies in 2016 with signs that read "Trump Digs Coal," U.S. consumption of coal continued to plummet during his tenure and fell to a 60-year low in 2020. Yet coal use in the U.S. is expected to rise by an estimated 20 percent during Biden's first year in office, due to an increase in gas prices that has made coal a comparatively cheaper energy source.

Despite years of decline, coal continues to provide at least half the energy for eight U.S. states: Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming — which may have something to do with the refusal of West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin to back Biden's proposal to incentivize utilities to move away from coal.

A lump of coal held cupped in two hands.
An engineer holds a lump of coal at UK Coal's Cutacre surface mine near Bolton, England, in 2008. (Reuters/Phil Noble)

Coal, of course, is the single most polluting fossil fuel, and its elimination as an energy source is seen as essential to keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.

Though still stalled in Congress, Biden's budget bill contains billions of dollars in tax breaks for coal-fired power plants that install carbon-capture systems. Critics of that plan say it will extend the life of facilities that need to be shut down to avert the worst consequences of climate change from coming to pass.

While the transition away from coal won't be easy, countries like France see it as a business opportunity. French President Emmanuel Macron recently unveiled a $1.16 billion program to develop mini-nuclear reactors, which he hopes to export to other countries, such as Poland, that still rely on coal. Given Poland's COP26 pledge to ditch coal, its success may provide a road map for other nations in the years to come.


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