February 17, 2015

We’re Going About Reducing Coal Consumption All Wrong.

Ashok Govind/Flickr

The U.S. does not control other countries and, it seems to me, when we stick our noses into other countries’ policy creation and regulation, there’s a good deal of resentment and smaller results than anticipated.

So when Obama and Xi Jinping agreed to “reduce” and “stop growing” carbon emissions, respectively, I was, and continue to be, skeptical.

The agreement to “reduce” and “stop growing” carbon emissions is non-binding and dates are non-constraining. Neither party has to follow through with this agreement…this is probably not the most effective way to go about reducing carbon emissions.

Effectiveness aside, I see why the agreement was made.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China and India consume the same amount of coal as the rest of the world combined. The New Yorker claims that between 2005 and 2009, China built the equivalent of all the coal fired plants in the U.S. The Washington Post says that China finishes a new coal fired plant every eight days.

So, the question of reducing global coal consumption centers largely on China reducing coal consumption.

To understand how China would reduce coal consumption, we need to look at why China consumes so much coal.

The answer is that China uses coal as a cheap way to manufacture goods for the U.S. and other countries. Our computers, phones, light bulbs, clothing and countless other products are produced in China using electricity from coal-fired plants. So, taking your iPhone (and mine) and other Chinese-produced goods into account, the U.S. is probably the largest coal consumer in the world.

That means, instead of trying to regulate what China is doing, we should probably put some more regulations into place in the U.S.

If the U.S. were to put large “environment” taxes on consumer goods that were produced with coal and label them as such, consumers would, most likely, not buy as many goods that were produced using coal plant electricity. These taxes could then be used to buy carbon offsets in the form of reforestation programs, wind farm subsidies, solar subsidies and methane digesters.

China has always competed on price with manufactured goods. So there is the concern that this tax would just as effectively limit China’s economy as regulations.

However, I believe if there was a large hit to China’s economy because of “environment” taxes on consumer goods in the U.S., China would be faster to innovate greener manufacturing processes. This would result in an alignment between business objectives and “greener” energy sources, instead of divorcing business objectives from sustainability and causing resentment, which is what I believe government-enforced regulation would do.

Instead of cutting coal consumption because of the government, China would be cutting coal consumption in order to compete on price with U.S. goods produced using cleaner-burning energy sources like natural gas.

The U.S. cannot, and should not, try to regulate China’s consumption of coal by using China’s government and attempting to influence policy.

The only way we should influence the coal consumption of other countries is by teaching consumers that coal is the more expensive option (literally, but also for human health and the environment).



Cassidy, John. “Is China Really Going Green?” The New Yorker. N.p., 15 Nov. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2015. 

“Coal Statistics.” Coal Facts. N.p., 14 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.

“International Energy Statistics – EIA.” International Energy Statistics – EIA. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2015.

Nakamura, David, and Steven Mufson. “China, U.S. Strike Deal to Limit Greenhouse Gases.” Washington Post. N.p., 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Feb. 2015. 

Narayanan, Nayantara. “China May Not Find Enough Coal to Burn.” Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 09 Feb. 2015. 

“U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” U.S. Coal Exports Fall on Lower European Demand, Increased Global Supply. N.p., 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2015. 



Author: Samantha Cole-Johnson

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Ashok Govind/Flickr

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