How replacing coal with renewable energy could pay for itself

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International negotiators can’t agree on how to phase out coal, in part because of opposition to carbon taxes, and now even countries that had been able to abandon the fuel are reversing that progress, as the war in Ukraine raises energy prices.

The most common concern about scrapping coal is that replacing it with renewable energy would be too expensive, but we show in new research that the economic benefits would far outweigh the costs.

We analyse this great carbon arbitrage, as we call it, in a recent working paper that calculates the cost of replacing coal with renewables, as well as the social benefits of this important transition. The benefits from ending coal use come from avoiding damage from climate change and harm to people’s health. Our estimate is that by doing so the world would yield a net gain of nearly USD 78 trillion through the end of this century. That’s around four-fifths of global gross domestic product now, and would be equivalent to about 1.2 per cent of annual global economic output during the period.

To determine both the size of the avoided emissions, as well as any potential losses from their prevention, we use a detailed dataset compiled by Asset Resolution on companies’ historical and projected global coal production based on the aggregation of production at the plant level.

The cost estimate for adopting renewable sources includes capital spending for new energy generation capacity equal to what’s lost with coal, plus compensation to coal companies for lost earnings when they are shut down. The cost estimate does not include compensation for affected workers, but this is likely to be small relative to the overall net gains from the transition. Additional compensation to make the switch to renewables feasible could be offered as long as the social benefits of phasing out coal exceed the more comprehensive set of costs.

Carbon price

We calculate the value of doing so by estimating the reduction in emissions from phasing out coal, and by applying a carbon price to those discharges. This in turn lets us estimate the economic gain from the transition. The difference between the value of the social benefits versus costs of replacement and compensation for missed coal revenues forms our baseline estimate of world’s net gain from finally ending our reliance on the fuel.

While our conservative estimate comes with an unavoidable uncertainty, given the decades-long timeframe, the enormous social benefits from what could be thought of as an inexpensive insurance policy are clear: paying a premium offers coverage for significant potential damages.

So sizeable are the potential gains that world leaders should pursue a global agreement to finance the phase-out of coal as a complement to carbon pricing or equivalent measures that currently don’t fully offset the negative effects of the emissions. We have chosen all our parameters, including the social cost of carbon, in a conservative way. The carbon arbitrage could in fact be bigger still for less conservative estimates.

Our research shows that ending coal use shouldn’t be seen as too costly, because it provides economic benefits from reduced carbon emissions, such as avoiding physical damage to infrastructure caused by climate change. Investments in renewable energy also support economic growth and offer additional attendant benefits from innovation.

Significant benefits

The analysis shows that phasing out coal isn’t just urgent, because it would help limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Importantly, the economic and health benefits are significant enough that we should push harder for global agreements that unleash the potential power of capital markets.

The bottom line for policy is that if compensation was built into an agreement to scrap coal, and if innovative financing packages could incentivise advanced, emerging and developing economies alike to end the fuel’s use, the net social gains from such an agreement would be enormous.

To better understand just how large the payments would need to be, we broke down the costs for different regions. The present value of total financing that’s conditional on commitments to scrap coal is around USD 29 trillion globally, in line with what other studies estimate. That works out to between USD 500 billion and USD 2 trillion annually, with a front-loaded USD 3 trillion investment this decade. Of the global financing need of around US$ 29 trillion, we estimate that 46 per cent is in Asia, 18 per cent in Europe, 13 per cent in North America, 13 per cent in Australia and New Zealand, 8 per cent in Africa, and 2 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It’s a major funding challenge. But despite arguments that no government can afford such investments and that the private sector should steer its funding to renewable energy, most of the backing can indeed come from the private sector, once risks are reduced by sufficient public funds via so-called blended finance, which could mean public funding of around 10 per cent.

Broadly speaking, it’s in the interest of a government to finance 10 per cent of its country’s total costs to replace coal with renewables if this amount is less than its resulting social benefits in terms of lower climate damages. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests this holds true for nearly all countries. Considerations of fairness, a country’s fiscal position, or both, may in certain cases call for foreign contributions to finance 10 per cent of a country’s costs to phase out coal.

Energy transition

We view global carbon taxation at the social cost of carbon as a first-best solution. Public-private partnerships to finance the replacement of coal with renewables could accelerate the green transition and complement incomplete carbon pricing by helping to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aim of making finance flows consistent with a pathway toward low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

For their part, economists have two different approaches to what the profession calls internalising negative externalities. That loosely translates as making companies pay more of the costs imposed by some harmful result of their activity, such as pollution. One, associated with Arthur C. Pigou, uses taxation or some other pricing to fully reflect the social cost of an economic activity. The other, linked to Ronald H. Coase, seeks an efficient social outcome through bargaining and contracting. Clearly, both approaches are needed for a global strategy to combat climate change.

Our research concludes that, under the kind of approach Coase pioneered, it’s sound economic logic to pay for the replacement of coal with renewables to reap a net social gain measuring in the tens of trillions of dollars.

Phasing out coal is not only a matter of urgency for the planet. It also makes economic sense because, as we show, the social gains far outweigh the costs of climate financing to end coal.

By Tobias Adrian, Patrick Bolton and Alissa M. Kleinnijenhuis