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Coal Is Going Down, Even Without the Clean Power Plan
By Elliott Negin
Last Monday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he will repeal the Obama administration's regulation to curb power plant carbon emissions, telling coal miners in Kentucky that "the war on coal is over." The next day he kept his promise, issuing a proposed rule to eliminate the Clean Power Plan.
It was hardly a surprise. After all, President Trump has called climate change a "hoax" and vowed during his campaign to bring back coal jobs, which is why Pruitt made his preliminary announcement in Kentucky, where workers have a direct economic stake.
Despite the rhetoric, however, Pruitt and Trump can't alter the harsh reality of the U.S. coal industry: Terminating the Clean Power Plan isn't going to bring it back.
Consider the facts: As recently as 2008, coal-fired power plants generated half of all U.S. electricity. Since then, demand for coal has dropped steadily due to cheap natural gas, new wind and solar projects, energy efficiency initiatives, and bad investment decisions, forcing three of the four largest U.S. coal companies—and smaller ones as well—into bankruptcy. Today, coal accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. electricity generation.
As for jobs, mechanization displaced miners years ago. In 1980, more than 228,000 people worked in the coal industry. In July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the industry employed only 50,400. Employment is especially anemic in Kentucky, which supplies 7 percent of the nation's coal, making it the third-largest coal-producing state. The coal industry employed just 5,600 people in Kentucky in July, according to the BLS, a mere 0.28 percent of the state's non-farm working population and 70 percent fewer than at the end of 2008.
Mining jobs aside, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis, the rapid transition away from coal-powered electricity is likely to continue no matter what the Trump administration does.
"A significant portion of today's coal fleet can't compete economically with cleaner energy options," said Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst and the report's lead author. "That's particularly the case in the Southeast, where operational costs for coal units are considerably higher than what utilities would have to pay for natural gas or renewables."
Coal Plant Retirements Will Continue
The numbers tell the story: Nine years ago, 1,256 turbine units at 526 coal-fired power plants had a generating capacity of nearly 357 gigawatts (GW). (One gigawatt can power some 700,000 average homes). Now, 706 units at 329 coal-fired power plants have a capacity of 284 GW—20 percent less. In the intervening years, utilities converted 98 units to burn natural gas and retired 452 others.
Of the remaining 706 units, utilities have already announced plans to either retire or convert 163 more by 2030, amounting to roughly 18 percent of total U.S. coal capacity. But even that does not provide the full picture: UCS identified another 122 units at 58 plants that are uneconomic compared with natural gas—an additional 20 percent of coal capacity that is ripe for retirement. Taken together, UCS analysis shows that U.S. coal-fired electricity capacity could drop by more than a third in the next 15 years.
This inevitable decline will affect some states far more than others. Ironically, the state that consumes the highest percentage of uneconomic coal-fired electricity is West Virginia, the second-largest U.S. coal-producing state. UCS found that 12 of the 19 coal-fired units currently operating in the state are ripe for retirement, accounting for some 57 percent of the state's electricity. Four other states are generating more than 20 percent of their electricity from uneconomic coal-fired units: Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Fewer Coal Plants, Better Health
Shutting down more old, inefficient coal units or converting them to run on natural gas will undoubtedly have a positive effect on public health. The data show that tighter pollution controls and closures already have dramatically reduced toxic coal plant pollutants linked to cancer and cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases. Between 2004 and 2012, for example, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions—the main components of fine particulate pollution—dropped 68 percent and 55 percent, respectively, according to a 2015 Clean Air Task Force study. As a result, the study found, the number of asthma attacks attributable to coal plant pollution plunged 77 percent, heart attacks decreased 69 percent, hospital admissions plummeted 74 percent, and premature deaths declined 68 percent, from 23,600 to 7,500.
Closing more coal plants would particularly benefit low-income communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately harmed by coal's toxic emissions. A 2012 NAACP study found that the nearly 6 million Americans who lived within 3 miles of a coal plant in 2000 had an average per capita income of $26,000 in today's dollars—15 percent lower than the national average—and 39 percent were people of color. According to UCS, by 2016 the number of Americans living within 3 miles of a coal plant was down to 3.3 million, and when the units scheduled for retirement are shuttered, fewer than 2 million will live that close.
According to an August 2016 Carnegie Mellon study in the journal Energy, converting all currently operating coal power plants to natural gas would further reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent and 60 percent, respectively. But coal plants are also one of the nation's largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for roughly 20 percent. Replacing them with natural gas would not do enough to reduce the electric power sector's contribution to climate change, not only because the burning of natural gas produces carbon dioxide, but also because gas leaks at drilling sites, processing plants and pipelines release methane, a more powerful heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. The UCS analysis recommends a better approach.
The Case for Renewable Energy
"In states where many outmoded coal units will likely close, a wholesale shift from one fossil fuel to another is tempting, but it would be a big mistake," said Sam Gomberg, a UCS senior energy analyst and coauthor of the new UCS report. "Aside from the fact that it wouldn't adequately combat global warming, there are other problems with relying too heavily on natural gas, including yo-yoing prices and utilities getting stuck with obsolete infrastructure." To avoid these pitfalls, Gomberg said, states should diversify their energy mix with renewable resources such as wind and solar power, energy efficiency, and emerging technologies, including battery storage and smart meters.
Given the scale and scope of the energy transition now under way, the choices utilities make to replace coal will have a major impact on public health, the environment and economic justice.
"Our analysis makes it abundantly clear that the transition away from coal is continuing and it's long past time for Congress and the administration to drop the false premise that killing environmental safeguards will bring back coal jobs," said Richardson. "Cities and states need to prepare for this next wave of coal plant retirements and work with local communities to figure out how to avoid an overdependence on natural gas and ensure that the benefits of transitioning to a clean energy economy flow to communities equitably."
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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.
Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.
Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.
SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.
It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.
Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.
In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.
The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).
"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.
The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.
"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
Ivory Coast's rainforests have been decimated by cocoa production and what is left is put in peril by a new law that will remove legal protections for thousands of square miles of forests, according to The Guardian.
By Karin Kirk
Greenland had quite the summer. It rose from peaceful obscurity to global headliner as ice melted so swiftly and massively that many were left grasping for adjectives. Then, Greenland's profile was further boosted, albeit not to its delight, when President Trump expressed interest in buying it, only to be summarily dismissed by the Danish prime minister.
During that time I happened to be in East Greenland, both as an observer of the stark effects of climate change and as a witness to local dialogue about presidential real estate aspirations, polar bear migrations and Greenland's sudden emergence as a trending topic.
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market. Cirou Frederic / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images
Heavy metals that may damage a developing brain are present in 95 percent of baby foods on the market, according to new research from the advocacy organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which bills itself as an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations and donors trying to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals during the first three years of development.
By Kerstin Palme
Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.
But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.
Volvo introduced its first-ever all-electric vehicle this week, kicking off an ambitious plan to slash emissions and phase out solely gas-powered vehicles starting this year.
The report, released Wednesday, found that almost every European who lives in a city is exposed to unhealthy air, Reuters reported.