In a significant shift, government-run institutions financing overseas development have taken a series of steps this summer to sharply curtail their investments in coal-fired power plants.
In June, President Obama said that the United States would no longer finance coal plants through the US Export-Import Bank unless they used carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology or there was no other option for the poorest countries to generate electricity. In July, the World Bank announced it would provide financial assistance to new coal projects “only in rare circumstances.” And later last month, the European Investment Bank (EIB) said it would stop funding new and refurbished coal plants unless they emit less than 550g carbon dioxide/kWh (~1,200 lb carbon dioxide/MWh), about half of what the average U.S. coal plant emits.
It makes sense that financial decisions should factor in environmental impacts: Continued investment in an energy source that is only going to lead to increased costs from extreme weather and other climate change impacts makes no sense. As a practical matter, however, these steps by themselves are unlikely to slow the coal plant-building binge in China and India, or make significant reductions in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
While global greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, U.S. emissions are back down to where they were in the mid-1990s. This decline is partly due to the economic downturn, but a key contributor has been electricity generators’ shift from coal to natural gas.
Some good news on U.S. carbon emissions: They fell again last year. Carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels used for transportation, power, industry and in our homes fell 3.4 percent in 2012, according to a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In fact, they’ve fallen 12 percent since their 2007 peak, to the lowest level since 1994.
Why were carbon emissions down last year? The short answer is because we used less coal and petroleum, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels. But there are various reasons for that decline in use.
With the latest round of international climate change talks underway in Doha this week, it’s a good time to check in on the United States’ pledge, made three years in Copenhagen, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Are we on track to meet that?
The short answer: Not yet. But projections depend on assumptions, so let’s look at a few recent projections.