From its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to its fierce opposition to the EU aviation emissions trading scheme, the U.S. has a long history as a bad actor in the international climate fight. So how is it that the U.S. now leads the world in cutting CO2, with emissions dropping 7.7% in the last five years? Because a historic transition away from carbon intensive coal is well underway. That transition, and those who are leading the call to Move Beyond Coal, Now! are on the front lines of the most important climate fight today.
This fight isn't being fought in the halls of congress, or the halls of EPA, it's being fought in community after community across the US. The victory belongs to communities around the country that stood up for their health and fought every single coal-fired power plant proposed under the Bush administration, halting an impressive 170 projects. These activists are now calling for clean energy and efficiency to replace the nation's existing dirty and outdated coal fleet, and with over 120 coal-plants retired, and 170 coal plants defeated to date, it's clear that they are winning.
What many people don't realize is that the same thing is happening in Europe. Coal's share of generation has declined from 39.4 percent to 25.7 percent over the past 20 years. Of the 120 coal fired power plants proposed in Europe in 2007, none have been brought to the construction stage - due in large part to determined grassroots opposition. The effect is clear - in 2011, clean energy accounted for 71 percent of the new electricity capacity in the European Union, while another 22 percent was natural gas-fired generation. That's overwhelmingly not coal. The heart of this revolution is Germany, which now aims to generate 100 percent of its power from clean-energy sources by 2050 — and is well on the way to meeting that goal.
But it's not just the US and the EU that are closing coal-fired power plants. The world's largest coal exporter, Australia can now join that list. The last proposal for a new coal plant in Australia is now dead after the government pulled its funding. More importantly, coal use is down 10% since July last year.
The writing is on the wall in the Western World and the consequences for the coal industry couldn't be more dire. With traditional markets drying up, the coal industry is betting on exports and massive coal plant expansion in Asia to keep afloat. But grassroots activists have other plans.
The story of fierce resistance to coal is hardly unique to the Western world. Across the globe, communities are fighting back against the money and influence of the coal industry. They are struggling against seemingly impossible odds, including intimidation, violence and corruption – and amazingly they are winning.
Take India, where villagers and fishermen literally put their lives on the line to protect the wetlands that sustain them, successfully stopping construction of a new coal-fired power plant and setting off an anti-coal movement that is sweeping across the country. In Turkey, activists held their ground until police forces literally ran out of pepper spray, eventually preventing a new coal plant from being built in the black sea jewel town of Gerze. In Malaysia, indigenous groups banded together with environmentalists to halt a coal plant in paradise - the ecologically sensitive Malaysian Borneo area. And even in China, known for its smog and reliance on coal, demonstrations against air pollution forced the Shifang government to abandon plans to build a new coal project.
Coal industry officials are of course working hard to ignore this while pushing the narrative that only increased coal-fired power can provide energy to the 1.3 billion people in the world without access to electricity. The problem is of course facts. The International Energy Agency (EIA) found that unless the majority of all energy finance goes to off-grid clean energy - not coal - over 1 billion people will still lack basic energy access in 2030. Simply put, coal will not deliver energy access for the poor, but the coal industry doesn't want you to know that.
Ironically enough India's blackout taught this lesson well. Those who were best served during the blackout were those who had decentralized off grid clean energy systems - not the centralized grid and the coal plants that power it. The best part is that innovations in finance and business delivery are making the grid obsolete (check out community power).
All this truth runs counter to the conventional wisdom that coal is the only cheap and and effective means of ensuring energy access. That's why the coal industry is working hard to lock in new projects before the facts get out. They know that once a coal-fired power plant is built, owners and operators will be forced to use it for the next several decades to recoup the costs, ensuring years of unnecessary climate change pollution and toxic emissions.
But time is running out. The price of coal has skyrocketed on the international market, and it's not going to go back down. Projects in India are going bankrupt because they can't afford to buy coal to fuel their boilers, while Indian banks take notice and freeze credit for new pants. And even if Asia did want to import all of that U.S. and Australian coal, despite the evidence to the contrary, there are massive protests against coal exports from local residents from Wyoming to India.
The truth is there is an international movement brewing of communities across the globe that are standing up to the forced removals, economic hardships, and deadly pollution that accompany coal projects. Often, activists come from the poorest sections of society, with the most to lose from both industry reprisals and climate change. But their heroic efforts have shown that the coal industry is also vulnerable; they have shown that a clean energy future is possible; and they have shown that we don't need to wait for governments to get on board. We can fight climate change right here, right now, by standing up to the fossil fuel industry and demanding clean energy. Now it's time to join them.