A coal-fired power plant in Moundsville, West Virginia (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

Every year, environmental extremes reach new levels. If there was a record for the greatest number of climate records broken in one year—the highest land and sea temperatures, lowest Arctic ice levels, most wildfire damage, greatest sea-level rise—2023 would win it easily. And not just because the numbers are steadily creeping up; no, this year we have entered what the Oxford 2023 state-of-the-climate report called “uncharted territory,” with dramatically accelerating effects and record extremes in twenty of the report’s thirty-
five climate vital signs.

Globally, we are also consuming near record-breaking levels of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Coal accounts for 40 percent of current carbon-dioxide emissions. Up from a dip during the pandemic, coal consumption in 2022 was just .01 percent below its 2014 all-time high. Much of this increase is driven by China, which has continued to build new coal-fired power plants even while it dramatically increases renewable-energy production. In the run-up to the November meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Biden, both leaders agreed on the importance of tackling climate change and increasing renewable-energy production—but the statement of cooperation from their climate envoys, welcome as it is, contained no specific language about phasing out coal. While the United States can’t force China to commit to such a phase-out, it can at least pursue its own.

This is not a case of asking consumers to sacrifice short-term economic benefit for the long-term health of the planet.

For the United States, replacing coal is the rare climate issue for which solutions are not just theoretically possible, but currently available at a lower cost than maintaining the status quo. A study by the think tank Energy Innovation found that it would be cheaper to replace the energy produced by all but one of the coal plants in the continental United States with wind and solar. The vast majority of these renewable-energy plants could generate electricity within thirty miles of the coal plant they replace. This is thanks in part to a provision in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that offers tax credits for building renewables in communities that had previously relied on fossil fuels. Not only does this help ensure a more just energy transition, but it also has the added benefit of potentially using existing transmission infrastructure to connect new energy to the grid. Even with the cost of installing batteries to store the energy generated intermittently by solar and wind, retiring the coal plants would save billions.

But many utility companies are still hesitant to close those plants. Capital costs, including upgrades to meet new environmental regulations, have saddled plants with debt; making the transition away from coal would require borrowing even more money upfront. Bureaucratic hurdles can also delay renewable projects from getting approval to connect to the grid. Here, too, there are solutions. The IRA provides funding for refinancing coal debt, a “win-win-win” for customers, utilities, and the environment. Meanwhile the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering updating its interconnection policy.

The United States doesn’t need to be the world’s third-highest coal consumer to maintain economic growth, energy independence, or jobs for people in historically fossil fuel–reliant areas. This is not a case of asking consumers to sacrifice short-term economic benefit for the long-term health of the planet. Our coal energy generation has already dropped significantly in the past two decades. We’re on the right track, but it’s not enough to get there “eventually.” As the effects of climate change accelerate, our efforts to combat it must also accelerate. Action or inaction now has exponential effects in the future. We’ve already laid the groundwork for action. Now we must see it through.

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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