With major fossil fuel projects ramping up across the globe, fossil fuel interests are ignoring the catastrophic costs that carbon pollution causes (and will cause) around the world. Meanwhile, critics of clean energy technologies continue to spread disinformation to discredit the emerging sector and promote fossil fuels as the only viable source of energy.

Passing the point of no return

Coal exports are on the rise. U.S. coal exports exceeded the Department of Energy’s projections by 30% in 2012 as reported by Nate Aden, a PhD student from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. Coal demand is being driven in part by economic growth in China and other developing countries, but these developing countries are not alone. The World Resources Institute found that 1,100 coal-fired power plants are being proposed around the world. And, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, countries in Europe were the destination for 45% of U.S. coal exports in 2012.

Australia and Indonesia also have major coal export projects underway. According to the Guardian’s Graham Readfearn, Australia is already the world’s largest exporter of coal, sending twice as much CO2 abroad than it emits at home.

Readfearn writes that exports of carbon fuels will come back to bite Australia in the form of climate disruption. In the past two months, Australia has been ravaged by hundreds of wildfires caused by the “biggest and longest heat wave on record in January.” This type of extreme weather is exactly what 97% of climate scientists have been warning our leaders for over two decades. The New Scientist cited Jon Nott who researches extreme weather events at James Cook University (in Australia) saying, ”The frequency of more intense events is going to increase” as a hotter world becomes the new reality.

The Washington Post reported, “If we want to avoid severe global warming, we’ll have to stay within a strict carbon budget in the decades ahead…” A new report by Greenpeace details the 14 biggest threats to the “climate stabilization budget” with the top three being China’s coal reserves in the western provinces, Arctic oil drilling and Australian coal exports. Coal exports account for three of the 14 fossil fuel projects under development that would “blow past [our strict carbon] budget.”

Largest dirty energy expansions by 2020

So, with these identifiable threats to stabilizing the earth’s climate, why aren’t we rapidly decommissioning fossil fuel projects around the world?

One answer lies in the powerful and fossil fuel-funded opposition to clean energy solutions to climate change.

Clean energy opponents argue that clean energy technology is “too expensive” while ignoring the much larger subsidies and externality costs of fossil fuels (for more on these advocacy groups see our report, “Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page”).

While the argument about clean energy may have been true a decade ago, rapidly falling prices of wind, solar and other clean technologies are rendering that argument obsolete. In January, the International Renewable Energy Agency released a report (PDF) showing that “the rapid growth in the deployment of solar and wind is driving a convergence in electricity generation costs for renewable power generation technologies at low levels.” The report goes on to say that the rapid cost reductions of installed renewable energy technology mean that data one or two years old can significantly overestimate the cost of electricity from renewable energy technology. In other words, cost reductions are making clean energy competitive with fossil fuels around the world.

Moreover, the costs for fossil fuels (including fuels coming from the 14 projects above) do not account for the potential damage their emissions will cause as we drift towards climate disaster. These fossil fuel pollution externalities should be factored into the cost of business. After factoring in the cost of pollution, maybe digging up coal and shipping it across the globe won’t look like such a great investment.

For future generations, let’s hope the real cost of fossil fuels is factored into our calculations soon.


Posted by Gabe Elsner

Gabe Elsner is the founder and executive director of the Energy & Policy Institute. He is a thought leader on defending policies from attacks by incumbent energy interests and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Daily Mail, The Australian, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, and National Public Radio. The Energy & Policy Institute’s work has protected dozens of public policies that support the growth of the clean-tech industry.

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