U.S. Energy Policy: Setting Carbon Goals Without Nuclear Isn’t Global Leadership
Since 2000, CO2 emissions in the U.S. have decreased 8% and are trending down while global emissions have increased 40% and are trending up. Does this represent global leadership by the U.S. with respect to energy policy and carbon goals?
U.S. CO2 reductions are largely due to the transition from coal- to natural gas-fired power generation, but this has an eventual limit as there are only so many coal plants to displace. More concerning, approximately 5.6 gigawatts of U.S. nuclear capacity are scheduled for closure by 2019 primarily because deregulated merchant markets can’t appropriately value zero-carbon nuclear. The majority of this loss in zero-carbon baseload power will be filled with natural gas, resulting in a net CO2 increase that will offset reductions from the coal-to-gas transition. In this context, the loss of nuclear capacity is conflicting and requires policy attention. However, the issue is more acute beyond U.S. borders.
In 2015, for the first time in history, India exceeded the U.S. in coal consumption. China passed the U.S. in 1987 and now leads the world in CO2 emissions at a rate 1.7 times that of the U.S. India is moving in the same direction. Of the three countries, only the U.S. has reduced coal consumption and CO2 emissions over the past fifteen years; but, for every ton of decrease in the U.S., China and India increased theirs by 15 tons and 3.3 tons, respectively. One step forward, 18.3 steps backward—for these two countries alone. When we consider that 2.6 billion people mired in energy poverty are living in countries prepared to consume more fossil fuel, the magnitude of what we’re facing becomes daunting.
A key U.S. policy response to this global issue is EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which proposes to reduce power plant emissions by displacing coal with natural gas (which the power sector already is doing) and providing financial incentives for zero-carbon, intermittent solar and wind to the exclusion of zero-carbon, baseload nuclear. However, this preference for solar and wind, which can’t substitute for nuclear, won’t prevent the scheduled closure of nuclear plants nor incentivize the development of additional nuclear capacity to sustain CO2 reductions over the long-term. This also doesn’t translate to the developing world.
Developing countries consume fossil fuels because fossil fuels support their near-term economic needs—regardless of U.S. CO2 targets. This is reality. We can rail against fossil fuels and warn about climate change till the ice caps melt, but accusations and warnings aren’t solutions for these countries. They need workable, proven alternatives. This is where the U.S. should provide global leadership through development of advanced zero-carbon and low-carbon technologies for deployment in the U.S. and abroad. Nuclear power and highly efficient combined-cycle natural gas plants offer near-term alternatives to coal in developing economies, whereas carbon capture and storage is needed for long-term management of CO2 in regions where fossil fuel consumption continues unabated. This would accommodate the necessary baseload for aggressive development of renewable energy, which by itself cannot scale up to meet the economic needs of billions. U.S. industry is up to this challenge, but it needs a sensible investment climate in countries where financial risk is high, regulatory frameworks are complex, and governments are inefficient and often corrupt. To this end, U.S. policy should include high level diplomatic strategies abroad and corporate tax reform in the U.S. to stimulate investment in regions where advanced technologies are most needed and the business climate is perilous.
This is arguably the most daunting energy challenge in history and the scope extends far beyond the fence lines of U.S. power plants. If developed in a political bubble, U.S. policy can create the pretense that it’s taking significant steps to stem the tide of CO2, when in reality the additional carbon squeezed from its economy is being flooded by a tsunami of CO2 coming out of southeast Asia and other countries rightfully queuing up for their turn at economic development.
There’s space between where we are and where we want to be in a low-carbon future. While setting targets is necessary, that alone isn’t leadership. Leadership is navigating that space with implementable solutions. This demands resolve from U.S. policymakers to look beyond U.S. borders and national politics, accept global realities and respond with policies that match the scale and magnitude of this issue—a global scale of billions.