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Drop in use of coal drives 2.1% decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

Clinging to coal: West Virginia's fight over green jobs

Coal consumption in the United States dropped a record 18% last year, driving a 2.1% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study by the Rhodium Group, a private energy-research firm. The drop leaves coal generation in the U.S. at its lowest level since 1975.

More than 200 coal plants have closed since the Great Recession, cutting U.S. coal generation in half over the past decade. The Rhodium Group predicted in 2018 that half the U.S. fleet of coal power plants could be gone by 2030, if natural gas remains cheap.

Coal's decline is not surprising; the industry has long been failing to compete with abundant natural gas, made possible by an oil and fracking boom. The increase in natural gas — which became America's leading electricity source in 2016 — is expected to produce lower emissions than coal would have because it is less carbon-intensive, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

Despite that trend, however, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were still slightly higher than at the end of 2016. "Unfortunately, there was little good news outside the power sector," reads the report.

The net gain can be attributed to rising emissions from a host of other sectors that make up 73% of national emissions and "remain largely untouched, either by policy or technology innovation."

"Industry is now a larger source of emissions than coal-fired power generation, and growing," according the report. "There are low-cost technology solutions to reduce oil and gas methane emissions, but their deployment at scale requires strengthening regulations that the Trump Administration instead has been weakening."

Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back clean power regulations on coal plants. And in September, the Department of Energy withdrew requirements that required lightbulbs to meet higher energy efficiency standards. Critics warned the rollback would lead to higher electricity bills and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump has said that energy efficient light bulbs are more expensive, but, according to the Department of Energy's own website, households can save $75 each year by switching to more energy-efficient options.

Improvements in efficiency have slowed emissions from transportation and buildings, but Rhodium says only "large-scale fuel substitution" can produce "meaningful absolute declines."

Such meaningful declines were outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, but the U.S. is not on track to meet those goals, and Mr. Trump officially began withdrawing the U.S. from last year. The withdrawal won't become official until at least the day after the 2020 presidential election.

"We see nothing currently planned at the federal or the state level that is going to put the U.S. on track for the Paris Agreement target," Trevor Houser, an author of the report, told The Atlantic.

Even with the 2.1% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, the U.S. still fell far short of its climate targets outlined by the Paris Agreement, in large part because we achieved no net reductions over the previous three years.

Under the agreement, the U.S. pledged to reduce emissions to about 27% lower than 2005 levels by the year 2025. With five years to go, the U.S. would need to reduce emissions about three times faster than it is now.

"It's still possible," concludes the Rhodium Group report. "But will require a significant change in federal policy — and pretty soon."

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