Oct 28 2011

How China’s demand for coal may help make America greener, or not…

The Global Coal Trade’s Complex Calculation : NPR

Sometimes when I read the news, I wonder what it would be like to NOT understand basic economics, and then I realize how much of what goes on around us can be explained by two simple concepts: demand and supply. The NPR story below talks about how the construction of two proposed coal exporting facilities on America’s west coast could, indirectly, lead to a greener future for America. Listen to the story then read on for more analysis:

China, already the world’s largest coal consumer, continues to build new coal burning electricity plants at an alarming rate. Its appetite for the “black gold” has driven the world price up to $100 per ton, as it has demanded increasing quantities from its own coal producers, but also those in other coal rich areas like Australia and the United States.

However, because of America’s lack of coal transporting and shipping infrastructure, US coal producers have been unable to sell their abundant coal to the Chinese, who are willing to pay 500% the equilibrium price in the US. The US market has remained isolated from the world market, not due to any explicit, government-imposed barriers to trade, rather due to fact that they simply can’t get their coal to the Chinese energy producers who demand it most.

Graphically, this situation can be illustrated as follows:

If the export facilities on the West coast of the US are not constructed, it will remain difficult for US coal producers to sell their output to China at the high price of $100, and the domestic quantity (Q2) will continue to be produced and sold for $20 per ton. But with the new port facilities, US energy producers will now have to compete with Chinese energy producers for American coal, and the US price will be driven up to the world price, since demand now includes thousands of Chinese coal-fired power plants. As the price rises from $20 to $100, the domestic quantity demanded in the US will fall to Q1, as domestic energy producers seek alternative sources of energy, switching instead gas, solar, or wind power.

The irony is that through increasing the ease with which American coal producers can sell their product to China, the US may reduce its own consumption of coal and its emissions of greenhouse gasses. Overall coal production in the US will rise with increased trade, but overall consumption within the US will fall.

Now, this may sound great if you’re the kind of person who thinks only locally. Air pollution will be reduced in the US, health will be improved, our electricity production will be greener and more sustainable. But globally, by making its coal available to China, the US market will contribute to the continued dependence on carbon-intensive energy production, and delay any progress among Chinese energy producers towards a transisttion to greener fuel sources.

The podcast also points out the fact that if the US did undertake the construction of the new coal-exporting facilities, it could be that the current high price of coal will have led to the entrence of several other large coal prodcuing countries into the world market, reducing China’s demand for US coal, reducing the price at which American producers can sell to China and thereby off-setting any domestic environmental benefit that may have resulted from the large decrease in quantity demanded among US producers at the current price of $100 per ton.

The whole conversation about the coal industry is somewhat depressing when the environmental costs of the industry are considered. Another NPR show, Planet Money, ran a story this week about the “gross external damages” caused by the production of coal-powered electricity.

They cited a study which found that the damages caused by coal to human health and the environment outweight the benefits enjoyed by society from the generation of cheap electricity by around $10 billion in the United States alone. This means that if the US shut down every coal-powered energy plant in the country immediately, total welfare in the US would increase by $10 billion. There’s no doubt that energy prices would rise, but the gains in human and environmental health would outweight the added costs of electricity generation by $10 billion. If a similar analysis were undertakein in China, I would guess the potential welfare gain of transitioning to alternative energies would be far greater for the Chinese people.

Here’s the chart from Planet Money’s blog showing the net welfare loss of coal-generated electricity and other economic activities in the United States.

*GED = Gross external damages from pollution

Notice that although generating electricity by burning coal adds nearly $25 billion of value to America’s economy, its negative environmental externalities create nearly $35 billion in damage to the US economy. The net effect of using coal to make electricity, therefore, is around -$10 billion. America would be better off without coal-generated electricity, if we include environmental and health factors in our measure of well-being. Unfortunately, the negative environmental and health costs of coal-electricity generation are currently externalized by the industry, indicating that this industry may be experiencing a market failure.

Discussion questions:

  1. How would the construction of two coal-exporting facilities on America’s West coast ultimately lead to a cleaner environment in the United States? Do you think this prediction is realistic?
  2. Who stands to gain the most if the coal-exporting facilities are constructed? Who would suffer? In your opinion, should the facilities be constructed? Why or why not?
  3. Interpret the colorful diagram above. What do the green bars represent? What do the yellow and red bars represent? According to the graphic, which type of activity is most harmful to American society? How do you know?
  4. True, false, or uncertain. Explain your reasoning. “The burning of coal to make electricity should be completely banned in China, since China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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One Response to “How China’s demand for coal may help make America greener, or not…”

  1. FLawless Youth Reviewon 05 Sep 2014 at 6:14 am

    FLawless Youth Review

    How China?s demand for coal may help make America greener, or not? | Economics in Plain English