China is orchestrating a massive investment in solar and wind power to meet its growing energy needs, installing as much renewable energy capacity as the rest of the world combined, six years ahead of schedule.
However, this impressive success story masks an ugly truth: Without natural gas as a foundation, this renewable power is inextricably linked with rapidly expanding coal-burning in order to ensure grid reliability, which is creating more harm than good for our climate.
China quadrupled permits for new coal power plants in 2022, building six times more than all other countries. It now burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. Although China is the most disturbing example, the use of coal is expanding across developing countries in Asia, including India — which also, despite its push for renewables, will be heavily reliant on coal for the next several decades. Coal today accounts for 44 percent of global emissions, with nearly 70 percent coming from two countries, China and India. Even Germany, which Europe’s leader on renewable power installation, is turning its coal-fired plants back on to restore grid reliability in the absence of sufficient natural gas supply because of the war in Ukraine.
As Democrats supporting President Biden, we are aligned with the imperative to reverse climate change quickly with bold action, including ramping up investments in renewables and clean energy. The Inflation Reduction Act funds vital technologies such as carbon capture, rare earth mineral production, and hydrogen, which will all be critical to moving toward net-zero carbon emissions. That work has to happen now to reach scale in the years ahead.
But low-carbon natural gas must be part of the equation too, both here at home and exported abroad. That’s why Biden’s recent actions to halt LNG approvals is so disappointing.
Bipartisan energy leaders in Congress understand what’s at stake, as 30 of them traveled to COP28 in Dubai. At a recent summit at the Capitol following their trip, Democrats and Republicans, business, labor and renewable power leaders, have all identified the need to address permitting reform and get back to building energy infrastructure for both renewables and natural gas.
We’ve shared this sentiment with the Biden administration, including the critical role American natural gas exports must play to move the world off coal and provide our allies abroad with secure energy, so they aren’t instead forced to rely on hostile leaders. In fact, during this administration, American natural gas exports have largely been credited with stopping Putin’s attempts to bend European economies to his will. They have also helped Europe’s economies stave off crippling price increases.
The U.S. was once heavily reliant on coal, too, right up until 2005. But the growth of U.S. natural gas production and power plant conversions away from coal have helped us lead the world in emissions reductions — accounting for nearly 60 percent of US carbon emission reductions over the last 15 years. And while there is still work to do on methane, the natural gas industry is answering the call, certifying their gas to beat strict methane standards, investing in satellite tracking, and collaborating with the United Nations Methane Partnership.
Shrill and impractical voices in this debate have long blatantly ignored these realities, dishonestly attempting to force a false binary choice of renewables or fossil fuels upon a complex debate over geopolitics, economics, and climate. Young people absorbing their misinformation need to understand the future risks of the policies they are advocating.
They will even claim that natural gas is worse than coal, despite the fact that natural gas emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. If they had their way in ending natural gas use, many economies, including the U.S. would need to burn more and more coal to keep the lights on — moving us backward on climate — no matter how many wind and solar panels we install.
The value of natural gas is backed up by leading and trusted scientific experts like former Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, who has said natural gas should be viewed “as a multi-decadal, critical component of the energy transition.” One recent study found that simply converting the top 5 percent of the world’s dirtiest power plants to natural gas would cut electric sector global emissions by 30 percent.
So what are we waiting for, and how can we meet the challenge?
The answer is not to stop natural gas buildouts here in the U.S., but to expand energy infrastructure, meeting growing demand at home to ensure a solid foundation that supports the scaling up of renewables, and moving this secure, cleaner fuel overseas to cut coal emissions abroad.
It’s time for radically practical thinking about the urgent challenges we face on energy and climate, from both Democrats and Republicans. From our time serving with him in Washington, we know Biden to be the type of leader capable of this.
We urge his administration to rethink this counterproductive policy, which not only sets back our climate agenda, but also undermines his strong record of rebuilding American jobs and manufacturing.
Mary Landrieu (D-La.) served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2015. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) represented Ohio’s 13th congressional district from 2003 to 2023. The two are co-chairs of Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future.