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Death of US Coal Exemplifies Need for Paradigm Shift for Global Energy System

A new report released Tuesday by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative warns that the crash of U.S. coal markets is but a harbinger of things to come for all fossil fuel investments.

The report, The U.S. Coal Crash – Evidence for Structural Change (pdf), found that the slump in coal prices has forced more than two dozen U.S. coal companies into bankruptcy over the past three years.

With the rise of renewable energy and a growing call for countries to adapt their energy infrastructures for a more carbon-constrained future, the authors of the report argue that the crash of the U.S. coal economy “provides an excellent example of how the future may pan out globally and with other fuels as the world moves to a low-carbon economy.”

According to the study, the market’s demise has been driven by a combination of factors, including: lost market share to cheap shale gas, the falling cost of renewable energy sources, and increased environmental protections and industry regulation—driven largely by the Environmental Protection Agency. Further, international markets in Asia have similarly moved to adapt their energy usage in the face of growing concern over carbon emissions.

“The roof has fallen in on U.S. coal, and alarm bells should be ringing for investors in related sectors around the world,” said Andrew Grant, Carbon Tracker’s financial analyst and report co-author. “These first tremors are amongst the clearest signs yet of a seismic shift in energy markets, as high carbon fuels are set to be increasingly outperformed by lower carbon alternatives.”

On Monday, the international market research firm Macquarie Research warned investors that the outlook for U.S. coal producers is “increasingly bleak,” and the sector is likely to undergo “a wave of bankruptcies.”

“We’ve known for decades that coal posed serious health and environmental risks, but now coal has also become an investment risk as countries take serious actions to clear their air and protect the climate.”

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