STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It used to be that coal was king in the U.S. It's still royalty - half our electricity comes from it - but now coal is guo wang - that's king in Chinese.
RICHARD MORSE: Coal is 80 percent of all power generation in China. And the Chinese use of coal is really one of the largest drivers of global coal consumption and, hence, global emissions.
JOYCE: Coal is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases. China and India are now huge consumers of coal, and their appetite is growing.
MORSE: As long as economic development is a priority, I think climate takes a back seat, and in that situation, coal is going to win every time.
JOYCE: One energy expert who's watched this unfold is Trevor Houser, with the research firm RHG in New York. Houser advised the U.S. climate team in Copenhagen. He says China actually might like to get off the coal train.
TREVOR HOUSER: Two years ago, an epic snowstorm shut down that supply chain. Power went out for millions of Chinese. Even China's trains stood still, stranding tens of thousands of people - and a lot of coal. Houser says it's the lack of a reliable and cheap way to transport coal that is pushing China to look for alternatives fuels.
HOUSER: I think China has a strong incentive to move away from coal. I think there's going to be technical and economic challenges doing it, but there's certainly a policy push to go that direction.
JOYCE: As for the other big consumer of coal - the U.S. - the Obama administration has pledged to encourage more green energy from things like wind and solar power, and to subsidize more efficient use of energy. But as energy economist Henry Jacoby of MIT points out, displacing coal is politically risky.
HENRY JACOBY: There are something like 22 states in the United States that have some level of coal production. And, of course, that's not all the states that care about it, because there are a number of other states whose electric power systems are heavily dependent on coal.
JOYCE: Jacoby points out something that politicians are loath to admit: Switching away from coal, which is cheap so long as its negative environmental effects are not counted, will cost some consumers more on their utility bills.
JACOBY: If we don't have enough understanding of the climate issue for people to say, well, it's going to cost me a little bit more but I think it's important enough - if we can't get to that point in the Congress then we're not going to deal with a climate issue. It's a depressing thought.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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