Coal may have played an integral role in turning the U.S. into the world’s top economic superpower, but President Obama is actively pushing China, India and other emerging economies to ignore the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution and instead embrace renewable sources favored by those on the political left.
As part of his passionate push on climate change, the president recently implored developing countries to “leapfrog” old energy sources, which are the primary drivers of carbon emissions.
So far, however, there’s little evidence those countries intend to listen to Mr. Obama, with China’s coal consumption, for example, skyrocketing and projected to keep growing for the foreseeable future. The country now accounts for nearly 50 percent of all global coal consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Some energy analysts say that expecting the president’s sermon — in which he urges nations to now do as we say, not as we did for more than a century — to dramatically alter the worldwide energy landscape is a glaring example of the “dream world” that Mr. Obama and his backers in the environmental movement call home.
“The left used to look at telling the rest of the world what to do as something to be frowned upon when the U.S. was doing it. Now they seem to practice it with a lot of gusto,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president of policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “The idea that they’re going to forgo the Industrial Revolution, which really was an energy revolution, and go to forms of energy that [Mr. Obama] finds really cool is a dream world.”
The president has made no secret of the fact he views climate change as the main issue threatening the world, and he intends to work with other nations to secure a global agreement reducing carbon emissions. He has already taken steps to that effect in the U.S., imposing harsh new restrictions on power plant emissions designed to shrink coal’s role in electricity generation over the next 15 years.
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But Mr. Obama’s efforts on the international front have been less successful. In 2009 he walked away from a climate summit in Copenhagen without the broad climate agreement he sought.
The G7 nations — the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — have committed to developing a comprehensive climate plan by next year, though it remains to be seen if it will materialize.
Action in the developing world
But regardless of what those nations do, global carbon emissions will be driven by the developing world, mainly China and India.
In a speech last week to the powerful League of Conservation Voters, Mr. Obama didn’t mention specific countries but clearly hinted the coal-heavy road the U.S. traveled should not be followed.
“Developing countries have some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution. They are less equipped to cope with the effects of climate change than we are. But they’re also trying to deal with hundreds of millions of people in poverty,” he said. “The trade-offs for them are even tougher than for us sometimes, unless we describe how development should leapfrog some of the old technologies, [how they should] learn lessons from us and go right to a clean energy future. And we should be a part of that conversation, but we’ve got to lead by example. They’re waiting to see what America does.”
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From the administration’s perspective, the U.S. has begun to set a good example.
Last year, U.S. coal production dipped below 1 billion tons for the first time in two decades, according to EIA data.
Coal still generates nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, but the White House predicts that will drop to about 30 percent by 2030 if its climate change agenda continues as planned. Some analysts think the underlying goal is to reduce coal’s share by much more.
But in China and India, the trends are very different, as those nations are gravitating toward coal because of its low price and availability. China also is making significant investments in renewable energy, but given its exploding growth, coal will become an increasingly large part of the mix going forward, analysts say.
In 2012 China accounted for 46 percent of all global coal production and 49 percent of consumption, EIA figures show. The agency also pointed out that China’s gross domestic product grew 7.7 percent in 2012 and has been steadily rising along with coal use.
“China’s coal consumption fuels its economic growth,” the EIA said in a recent report.
The same year, U.S. coal production dropped by 7.2 percent, and consumption fell 11.3 percent, according to the EIA.
India also is fully embracing coal. Its coal imports shot up by 21 percent last year, Reuters reported, and the nation now is the world’s third-biggest importer, behind only Japan and China.
While the administration has deemed a reduction in carbon emissions as a top priority, the chief goals in developing largely impoverished nations, such as India, are to build reliable infrastructure and create a thriving middle class, putting them at odds with the president’s stated goals.
“In India, they’re saying, ‘Our main goal is poverty eradication. That is job No. 1. And that is what we will focus on doing.’ Everything in the Indian context starts from there,” said Sarah Ladislaw, director and senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “For China it’s really been about making sure you’ve got the resources you need to not constrain development.”