Why the U.S. Alone Can't Stop Climate Change (in 2 Graphs)

President Obama's election night reference to global warming kindled a bit of hope among liberals that his administration might make a concerted effort to tackle the issue in its second term. And unless we all plan on getting used to an annual superstorm season, we should hope so. 

But here's a reminder, courtesy of a recent World Resources Institute report on coal consumption, that whatever the U.S. does to deal with climate change, our efforts will be for naught unless they're part of a global effort. Coal-fired power plants are the top contributor to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and the future of coal will not be decided, by and large, in the United States, which consumed about 13 percent of the worldwide total in 2010. Instead, it's in the hands of China, which burned up 46 percent of it. 

Global_Coal_Usage.PNG

China is also responsible for almost 40 percent of all the new coal-fired power plant capacity that's been planned across the planet. Beijing says it wants to cap its total consumption at about 3.9 billion tons by 2015, though some analysts expect it to reach around 4.2 billion -- a 27 percent leap from where it is today. Meanwhile, India is also readying to install huge quantities of coal power capacity. Unless something can be done to limit usage in these developing giants, their growth is going to eclipse any reasonable U.S. carbon reductions.  

Global_Coal_New_Capacity.PNG

This isn't an excuse for inaction here at home. If anything, taking steps to curb greenhouse gasses domestically would be a demonstration of good faith should the world's leaders ever try to hash out a new climate treaty. And without that sort of international cooperation, we're all sunk. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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