April 11, 2014

WASHINGTON – Following the release of the second installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report and renewed calls for a comprehensive international climate agreement, the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment Program has produced a paper describing the political and legal realities constraining formal participation by the United States and proposing a technology-driven alternative for US leadership built on coal as an essential mainstay in the world’s energy mix and supported by the further development and broader deployment of advanced coal technologies, which allow coal to meet environmental goals in balance with energy, economic, and security priorities.

The paper’s authors, Bill Brownell and Scott Stone, argue that the push for a “legally-binding” agreement, even one simply internationalizing domestic regulatory programs, would clash with longstanding views on climate treaties in the US Senate. Given the current state of the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they argue that any likely outcome of the ongoing multilateral talks would fall short of receiving the constitutionally-mandated two-thirds vote in the Senate required for ratification.

As a result, Brownell and Stone argue the United States should prioritize practical and more readily achievable approaches to addressing climate change, particularly given the surging use of coal around the world. “Simply put: advancing conceptual elements of climate policy should not take precedence over advancing technologies capable of reducing actual emissions,” they write.

Brownell and Stone acknowledge the important role regulatory standards have played in raising the environmental performance of coal in the United States over the past forty years, but they also note that these standards were driven not just by activism, but by extraordinary advances in the development of cost-effective emission control technologies—innovation that is attributable to industry leadership and concerted research and development efforts, often in partnership with government.

The Atlantic Council paper also highlights the widely-recognized and inescapable reality that fossil fuels, especially coal, figure prominently into the domestic and geopolitical considerations of both developed and developing countries. Since 1970, coal use has increased exponentially at home and abroad, with coal usage in the United States increasing 173 percent and 355 percent globally. Coal use for electricity generation, steel production, and other industrial applications, Brownell and Stone argue, will remain a significant, and permanent, part of the world’s energy resources.  Coal’s abundance, accessibility, and affordability make it the  “fuel of choice” for countries around the world, including the United States, in pursuit of critical economic development and national security priorities.  Accordingly, Brownell and Stone argue that no climate treaty, even one ratified by the Senate, would be sufficient to override such fundamental national priorities, further underscoring the need to shift the emphasis from legal standards to technology innovation.

Some of the paper’s recommendations include:

  • Recognizing the essential role coal plays in the world’s energy mix and the unbounded potential of advanced coal technologies to meet core energy, economic, and security priorities while still satisfying environmental objectives.
  • Creating more public-private partnerships that encourage carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other advanced coal technologies
  • Increasing financial support and incentives for  demonstration and commercial-scale project development, and
  • Promoting knowledge-sharing and other partnerships and initiatives around the world to promote US technology leadership.
Read the full report here.


The Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan organization that promotes constructive US leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community in meeting today’s global challenges. For more information, please visit and follow us on Twitter @AtlanticCouncil.