President Donald Trump wrongly claimed that the Paris Agreement would allow China to “build hundreds of additional coal plants” and allow India to “double its coal production by 2020” but the United States “can’t build the plants.”
Strictly speaking, there’s nothing in the agreement stipulating which countries can and can’t build coal plants. While the United States is held to a higher standard than developing countries, the two he mentioned — China and India — have agreed to climate measures that would preclude a major expansion of coal. And perhaps most important, new coal plants in the U.S. aren’t economically feasible right now, due to lower costs of other forms of energy.
“You can’t build them cheaply enough,” James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University’s College of Law, says of new coal plants. Natural gas plants are cheaper to build, more efficient and cleaner. “It’s economics, it’s market forces.” Van Nostrand told us.
Emissions Targets in the Agreement
Trump made his claim on June 1 in announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which he described as “very unfair” to the United States.
The president has a point that the United States, and other developed countries, aren’t held to the same standards as developing countries. The accord states that they shouldn’t be, given their “different national circumstances.” Developed countries agreed to set economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, while developing countries, according to the agreement, “should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts” with the aim of achieving economy-wide absolute reductions eventually.
The U.S., for instance, set a target of reducing its emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below its 2005 level by 2025. That’s an absolute reduction. China, meanwhile, set a target that’s a ratio of gross domestic product, which means its total emissions will continue to increase as the country develops. China says it will lower its emissions per unit of gross domestic product within the range of 60 percent to 65 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. And the country set a goal of peaking its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, with “best efforts to peak early.”
All 195 countries that signed on to the agreement were asked to submit “nationally determined contributions,” which are voluntary targets for how they will contribute to achieving the agreement’s primary goal — to keep global average temperature “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”
India, too, has pledged an emissions reduction per unit of GDP, not an absolute reduction. Its target is for emissions per unit of GDP to be within the range of 33 percent to 35 percent below the 2005 level in 2030.
Since China’s and India’s targets allow emissions to increase until 2030, while the U.S. has set absolute reduction targets, we’ve heard misleading claims that those two developing countries don’t have to do anything until 2030. But as we’ve explained, they do have to take steps to meet those 2030 goals, and both countries have said they’ll increase their share of non-fossil fuel energy.
China said it would boost non-fossil fuel energy to 20 percent by 2030 to meet its emission targets. The share was 11.2 percent in 2014. India has set a goal of increasing its share of non-fossil fuel installed capacity to 40 percent — that’s up from 30 percent in 2016.
India’s Central Electricity Authority expects the share of non-fossil fuel installed capacity to reach 46.8 percent by the end of 2022 and 56.5 percent by the end of 2027.
Those countries can’t hit such targets by relying on coal, experts told us.
Van Nostrand at West Virginia University told us that while China is committed to growing its economy, it has been willing to commit to reducing the intensity of carbon dioxide. (That’s the reduction as a ratio of GDP.) “You can’t get there if you continue to invest heavily in coal,” he said.
China is also building fewer coal plants than the country had planned because of air pollution. It canceled plans for 103 plants, some of which were under construction, in January of this year, and had announced other cancellations in 2016.
India, too, has a goal to reduce carbon intensity, and to meet that goal of 40 percent non-fossil fuel capacity. It’s “hard to keep adding more coal plants,” Van Nostrand notes, if the country is committed to that.
Ranping Song, the developing country climate action manager for the World Resources Institute, told us in an email that “China and India are more likely … to curb coal growth” than promote it, due to their targets of decreasing reliance on coal and boosting renewable energy. “The latest draft National Electricity Plan of India, which goes through 2027, proposes no new coal-fired power plants at all during this period,” he noted, while “coal consumption in China has declined three years in a row.”
Plants in the U.S.?
While the Paris Agreement “does not forbid any country to build coal plants,” as Song told us, the U.S. wouldn’t hit its Paris Agreement targets by building new plants. That said, it’s economic forces, more so than environmental regulations, that has stymied an expansion of coal in this country.
Trump signed an executive order in March to review and potentially rescind environmental regulations such as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions for existing power plants. So, without a Paris Agreement and a Clean Power Plan, would the U.S. build new coal plants? “No,” says Van Nostrand. “They don’t make economic sense.”
He says the utility industry is a “ruthlessly competitive wholesale market” and coal can’t compete right now with natural gas. Even wind is now cheaper than coal. Last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance provided us with prices for the second half of 2016, showing onshore wind at $56 per megawatt hour in the U.S. on average compared with coal at $65 per MWh, not including government subsidies.
Gary Cohn, director of the president’s National Economic Council, also has acknowledged that natural gas is more competitive than coal. He told reporters on Air Force One in late May that “coal doesn’t even make that much sense anymore as a feedstock. Natural gas, which we have become an abundant producer, which we’re going to become a major exporter of, is such a cleaner fuel.”
In his June 1 speech on the Paris Agreement, Trump also claimed that the accord “effectively blocks the development of clean coal in America.” But the only way to meet emissions targets in the agreement with coal is by using clean coal.
“If anything the Paris Agreement encourages clean coal technologies,” Van Nostrand said.
Of course if a coal plant isn’t cost-effective right now, neither is a more expensive plant with clean coal technology. But without this agreement to cut carbon emissions, he said, “you have no reason to spend that extra money.”