Curbing China’s coal consumption: Why American action matters

Although China's coal consumption is now greater than that of the rest of the world combined, there are many things we can do in the United States to help push our largest trade partner toward a lower-carbon economy. 

by Jordan Schneider

The U.S. Energy Information Administration released a graph Tuesday illustrating that China is now burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. In an article posted the same day, Time magazine reporter Ryan Walsh called this “the scariest environmental fact in the world,” and added that Chinese demand for coal as a cheap energy source is likely to continue increasing over the next two decades, with much of the developing world, including India, following suit. These projections show that our ability in the United States to take meaningful action on global warming is limited, he argues.

Walsh is correct that demand for cheap fuel in fast-developing countries such as China will continue to rise as their economies expand, but he’s wrong about our inability to take action. Our demand for manufactured goods in the United States is a major cause of high demand for electricity in China. To keep energy prices low, China has increased imports of coal from places such as Australia and Indonesia to supplement domestic production. Faced with dwindling demand for their product at home, some U.S. coal producers see this trend as an opportunity to increase sales, and they are now proposing the construction of export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that could increase coal exports by 150 million tons per year. However, with the option to simply import more coal from the United States, rather than increase the efficiency of its manufacturing processes, China is unlikely to make the kind of cuts in global warming emissions that are so urgently needed.

There are many things we can do in the United States to help push our largest trade partner toward a lower-carbon economy, including reducing our demand for Chinese products by using (and reusing) our products more efficiently, and by resisting efforts by the coal industry to build West Coast export terminals. But most importantly, we must lead by example and eliminate our use of coal to power our own economy.

We have barely begun to scratch the surface of our true clean energy potential in the United States, and the power of American markets to generate abundant sources of affordable, clean energy has yet to be tapped. As fast-growing nations around the world figure out how to power their developing middle classes, they look to the example of the United States. That’s why it’s so important that we work quickly and aggressively to deploy more energy efficiency and clean energy technologies and build a clean energy economy that can serve as a model for developing nations.