The greatest threat to America’s environment is not climate change, it’s coal | David Roberts

Over the past few weeks, his administration has shown that it would go to lengths to prevent this from happening.

It has blocked utilities from shutting down aging coal plants, instructed airports to upgrade air-conditioning systems, and sought to maintain European subsidies for heavily polluting coal-fired power plants. This would make it more expensive for manufacturers to shift away from coal, putting them at a competitive disadvantage and forcing them to invest more in electric vehicles. On top of this, this week the EPA announced it will require most coal plants to install carbon dioxide sensors to determine whether they’re emitting into the atmosphere.

Coal could be fundamental to the future of the US. It powers two-thirds of our electricity and 38% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Less than half of US coal power plants are “grandfathered” – the last years of their life – which means they will need to be brought up to modern environmental standards. To prevent that from happening, Biden’s plan emphasizes cost-effective technological and financial incentives for the continued use of coal.

Beyond these technical and financial barriers, the overwhelming disadvantages of coal will be untenable for a generation, as rising costs and diminishing economies of scale take a toll on this network. In place of obsolete coal-fired power plants, investors are seeing expanding numbers of renewable energy projects. He even admits that “clean coal” is not feasible. Even the Sierra Club believes “clean coal” is a fantasy. This will have a major impact on the US economy, as coal-fired plants have depressed wages by an estimated $11bn and created hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Even if we permanently go coal-free, the world is on the brink of at least 25% reductions in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels. Biden’s plan only counts cuts from 1990 to 2018, but our political system has constantly postponed action by over a decade and now only has a few years left. Any plans to take us even to that level will require a significant investment. Luckily, businesses have been strategizing for decades about the transition to renewable energy. These days, they’re taking more than books out of libraries and office shelves. From electric cars to solar and wind farms, 100% of these investments are oriented to lower CO2 emissions and long-term cost competitiveness.

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Biden’s plan is thus lacking when it comes to concrete ideas for stopping the reduction of electricity demand caused by our own citizens. Whether because of subsidies for natural gas, the gasoline-guzzling cars that consumers love, or the failure to invest in mass transit, electricity demand has been declining slowly but steadily for decades. Spending on renewable energy has skyrocketed in recent years, and will continue to rise as public pressure increases. Additionally, Obama’s investment in renewable energy and national parks have “triggered” at least a dozen gigawatts of solar energy, boosting the economy by at least $1.5bn a year.

Over the past few weeks, Biden’s administration has shown that it would go to lengths to prevent this from happening. The logical first step, then, would be to extend that foresight to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. If our government prioritized that task, we’d see drastic reductions in our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Biden himself acknowledged that he needed to work with GOP Senators to push through his climate policy. Today, we’re still waiting.

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