In 2020, at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, United States coal production dipped to a 50-year low, with 151 domestic coal mines either closed or on hiatus. It seemed that coal was on a definitive, one-way track toward obsolescence. The past couple of years, however, have been anything but ordinary and all but predictable. By the end of 2021, U.S. coal production had reversed its downward trend and was spiking for the first time in years.
A global energy crunch has sent demand for virtually any kind of energy production soaring. China and India, in particular, were hit especially hard by a devastating coal crunch that drove the Asian twin giants to seek coal imports from all over the world, including the United States. This means that worldwide coal consumption and production are spiking at the same time that global leaders are doubling down on promises to curb emissions enough to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, the demarcated limit to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Last year saw the convening of COP26, a global climate change summit bringing together all of the world’s public and industrial leaders, as well as the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 6th Assessment Report. The Report stated in no uncertain terms that the window to avoid catastrophic climate change is closing quickly, but that this herculean task is still possible if there is a swift and sweeping global effort to wean the global economy off of fossil fuels.
These unprecedented levels of global cooperation will require strong leadership and example-setting from powerful first world countries, which are also responsible for the vast majority of global greenhouse emissions to date. While some of these nations are not currently responsible for a huge share of global greenhouse gas emissions, many believe that countries with powerful political and economic sway have a responsibility to set the tone for the global clean energy transition.
One such nation is Germany, a country with outsized influence on the global geopolitical stage. Germany, unlike most other developed nations in the European Union, is still largely dependent on coal for its national energy mix. Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, was nearly a third of all global emissions, representing the largest single source. While Germany itself is responsible for a small fraction of these, German leaders believe that the country has a duty to wean itself off of the dirty fuel if it is to expect other, high-emitting countries like China and India to do so.
The politics of leaving coal behind, however, are complicated to say the least. The recent return to coal has showcased just how hard the green energy transition will be, as the world will invariably hit many more bumps along the road to decarbonization. In the future, will threats to energy security such as the one we’re experinecing lead us back to coal?
If you ask coal workers, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Their labor and their product has been a reliable stalwart that keeps the world economy humming along, but the job has become a thankless one in recent years. A loss of purpose, respect, valuation, opportunity, and income in German coal country has led to severe political fissures, social cleaving, and radicalization. Even as Germany has worked to bring together coal miners and environmentalists to collaborate on equitable policy-making, including the provisioning of billions of Euros to support miners and mining towns, these divisions, distrust, and hard feelings have remained difficult to overcome.
The dynamic is highly reminiscent of the nascent energy transition in the United States. Across the pond, U.S. green energy policy is far behind that of Germany, but oil and gas workers and coal miners will be quick to tell you that they feel unsupported, unappreciated, and left in the lurch by a government that is struggling to place itself at the helm of the global fight against climate change.
The United States stands to learn a lot from Germany’s successes and failures in this regard. While phasing out fossil fuels is crucial and unavoidable, so too is supporting and acknowledging the contributions, struggles, needs, and priorities of the many, many workers and communities who stand to lose everything in the energy transition. Fossil fuels continue to run the vast majority of U.S. enterprise, and to shrug off the importance of oil and gas in a smooth green energy transition will sow –and has already sown – seeds of significant discord in the United States.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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