from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Will Coal Exports Undermine Efforts to Curb Climate Change?

April 10, 2012

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U.S. coal production is down but exports are up. That’s led to widespread warnings that efforts to curb U.S. coal consumption won’t do much if anything to slow climate change unless the United States bans exports too.

That conclusion strikes me as premature.

Brad Plumer, writing yesterday at the Washington Post, presents the argument for worrying about exports clearly:

“In 2011, the United States exported even more coal to countries like Brazil, South Korea and Europe, just as its own consumption was falling. That’s evidence in favor of the idea that if the United States won’t burn its vast coal reserves, then other countries will be happy to take the coal off our hands. And if that’s true, it would mean that the government’s recent spate of power-plant regulations aren’t helping the country make much progress on climate change. After all, carbon-dioxide that’s released by burning coal will heat up the planet no matter where it’s burned.”

But that’s only half of the equation. Increased U.S. coal exports will raise global greenhouse gas emissions if and only if they supplement other coal production rather than displace it. On that count, we’re actually flying pretty blind.

There’s reason, though, to suspect that a good part of increased U.S. coal exports would come at the expense of others’ output, which means that it wouldn’t increase net global greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the IEA tried to model how country-by-country coal output would be affected if the world slashed its coal consumption. It found that Chinese, Australian, and Indonesian production would be cut deeply, but that U.S. production would hold up far more strongly. This suggests, at a minimum, that substantial U.S. coal exports are compatible with a lower-carbon world.

Of course, one model isn’t anywhere close to dispositive. Nor does the IEA sketch imply that constraining U.S. coal exports wouldn’t reduce global coal consumption further. But it does suggest that the possibility of U.S. coal exports doesn’t necessarily mean that cutting U.S. coal consumption would be for naught. This is a place where people with decent coal trade models – there are a few out there – could really help illuminate a critical policy choice.