There’s a Reason It’s Called Global Warming: European Emissions Rise From Imported American Coal

US carbon dioxide emissions go down, but European emissions go up, as coal is traded worldwide

The coal-fired Bełchatów Power Station in Poland. Photo: Villeton

This year saw the United States’ emissions of carbon dioxide fall to a record level, one not seen in the past 20 years. There were a number of drivers of that decline, says the Washington Post, including the season’s unusually warm weather and the boom in cheap natural gas, created by hydraulic fracturing—commonly known as fracking—a controversial gas extraction mechanism. For an equivalent amount of electricity production, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide emissions than an equivalent energy’s-worth of coal. Slate:

The U.S. used to generate about half its electricity from coal, and roughly 20 percent from gas. Over the past five years, those numbers have changed, first slowly and now dramatically: In April of this year, coal’s share in power generation plummeted to just 32 percent, on par with gas.

That drop in coal use in America, however, did not mean that the coal stayed in the ground or in storage facilities. Rather, says Reuters, it went to Europe.

While shale gas production has provided a glut of cheap energy in the U.S. it has also driven out an oversupply of lower-cost coal to Europe.

…Analysts at Point Carbon, a Thomson Reuters company, estimate increased EU coal-use will drive a 2.2 percent rise in EU carbon emissions this year, after a 1.8 percent drop in 2011.

The shifting energy sources are driven both by the economics of the situation and by political forces. Reuters suggests that this trend will be short-lived, with European coal power plants scheduled to close. The situation, though, is a reminder that when facing a global dilemma such as increasing carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, shifts in emissions at home do not necessarily equate to a win if they are offset by losses abroad.

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