The U.S. Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, or "Reggie") has proposed that the region shoot for a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas levels next year. The target is not quite as ambitious as it appears at first glance, because it reflects greater-than-expected decreases to date, which have been associated with the economic slump and fast-growing contributions of renewable energy sources. A year ago, as reported here, the RGGI greenhouse gas trading system had already registered a 30 percent reduction since its launch three years previously, at the beginning of 2009. Still, the higher target for next year is expected to drive the price of emissions allowances up five-fold, to roughly $10 per ton, roughly the level they are going for at present in California's newly inaugurated cap-and-trade system.
The strong progress made by the two principal U.S. carbon trading systems, and the fact that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are at an 18-year low, could not come at a better time. In Europe, where by far the most progress had been made in cutting emissions in the decade following adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, headway is at a standstill and emissions are on the rise some places. Because of Fukushima's impact and decisions to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear energy, coal generation of electricity is sharply on the rise. Lignite, the dirtiest kind of coal, accounted for more than a quarter of Germany's electricity generation last year, up from 22.7 percent the year before. Hard coal, also up, accounted for 19.1 percent.
Because of this higher dependence on coal in some of the largest European economies, at just the time the United States is relying much less on coal and more on natural gas plus renewables, U.S. coal miners are able to make up for lower domestic demand with higher exports. So, in a sense, the United States is coming out ahead or even both ways: In global climate negotiations, it will now be at a moral advantage because of its strong five-year performance in cutting greenhouse gases, after years of coming across to other countries as the global slacker; yet at the same time its energy exporters are making out like bandits.
Despite the cancelling effects of more coal dependence abroad and less here, the situation also is a net plus for the world as a whole in terms of climate diplomacy. The world's two foremost economic areas--the United States and Europe--have both now made substantial progress in trimming emissions. That will mean stronger pressure on fast-growing less-advanced countries like China and India to get on board too.
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