The President’s speech was inspiring, but will his plan get us where we need to go to bequeath current and future generations a livable climate?
By Francesca Rheannon
With the clock ticking on both establishing his legacy and the globe’s chance to avert catastrophic climate change, President Obama declared war on “carbon pollution” at Georgetown University on June 25th.
Exasperated by a do-nothing Congress, he pledged to bypass the legislature and instead use the regulatory power of the Executive to bring U.S. emissions into line with the target he proposed at Copenhagen in 2009: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
A Climate Plan On Three Fronts
As he mopped his brow in the broiling sun in front of a crowd of cheering students, Obama outlined a battle plan on three fronts:
- Promote the move away from conventional coal power and toward “advanced fossil energy” (AKA natural gas and “clean coal”), renewables and “emerging” nuclear technologies;
- Create programs for communities to develop climate adaptation and resilience strategies;
- Lead international efforts to combat climate change.
His eloquent speech carried a powerful message: the moral imperative to avert condemning current and future generations “to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
The Context Is Averting Catastrophe
The phrase zeroes in on the crux of the matter: any serious plan to tackle the climate problem must prevent catastrophic climate change. That means, it must drag us back from the precipice we are fast approaching, where feedback loops are set into motion that result in runaway global warming. Most climate scientists say this cutoff point is 2 degrees C. of global temperature rise (some put it at 1.5 degrees.)
By this standard, does Obama’s plan get us there? No.
Judged by the yardstick of context-based sustainability goals, reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 is simply not going to cut it. Some European countries have more robust targets that they are well on the way to achieving.
Is it a step in the right direction? Yes.
Even given political realities, could it do better? Probably.
Let’s look just at some key areas in the first front of Obama’s battle plan: cutting what he calls “carbon pollution” – what is usually referred to as “carbon emissions” -- in America. What would Obama's plan do?
Direct The EPA To Do Its Job
The regulatory linchpin of the President’s climate plan would direct the EPA to do what it was mandated to do by the Supreme Court in 2007: regulate carbon emissions as a hazard to human health.
It would establish emission standards for all power plants, both new and existing, with no grandfathering in of the latter. (On the international front, the plan also calls for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas.)
However, such regulation would not begin until at least 2016. Since the White House has long known that the EPA must regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, it’s disappointing to see this three-year lag time. Scientists have already said that we have only four years (if that) to sharply cut emissions if we are to avert runaway climate change.
Boost Deployment of Renewable Energy
The President’s plan would also boost the deployment of renewable energy in areas within federal government control, such as on public lands, in the military and federally subsidized housing.
It would speed up permitting for renewables with the goal of issuing permits for ten gigawatts of renewables on public lands by 2020. (This seems a modest goal, considering that ten gigawatts have already been permitted since a 2012 directive -- ahead of schedule.) The process for siting, permitting and reviewing transmission projects for upgrading the grid across federal, state and tribal lands would also be streamlined.
By 2020, the plan aims to double wind and solar from current levels (already doubled in the past few years); direct the Department of Interior to permit enough renewable electricity to power six million homes; and reach 100 megawatts of installed renewable power to federally subsidized housing stock. The goal is to provide 20 percent of the power for federal government operations from renewables by that year.
Efficiency is the least costly, most effective way to cut carbon emissions rapidly. Obama’s climate action plan aims to pluck this low-hanging fruit in the areas of transportation and housing. It would:
- Work with industry to come up with tougher fuel economy standards for heavy duty vehicles after 2018;
- Establish new energy efficiency standards with the goal of cutting emissions by at least three billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030;
- Reduce barriers to investment in energy efficiency in housing -- for example, by working with mortgage lenders to factor energy efficiency into mortgage underwriting and appraisal; and
- Use performance contracts by federal agencies to drive innovation and development, including developing a standardized contract to finance federal investments in energy efficiency and synchronize building codes for federally owned buildings.
Expanding Investment in Non-renewable Alternatives To Coal
The most problematic area of Obama’s plan is in the privileged position he gives to some alternatives to conventional coal power that come freighted with serious environmental concerns of their own. Lumped in with clean renewables and painted with the same label of “clean energy innovation” are natural gas, “clean coal” and “emerging” nuclear.
Natural Gas: Obama has long been an advocate of natural gas, so his whole-hearted championing of it as a “bridge fuel” for it did not come as a surprise. It is ironic, however, that elsewhere in the document, the plan goes after methane as a potent greenhouse gas, but in the sections touting natural gas, no mention is made of the significant methane releases that result from fracking – and which some say make the process as damaging to the climate as coal.
And natural gas has serious other environmental concerns, especially on water. A warmer world is a water-constrained world: gas fracking uses copious amounts of water and contaminates aquifers with toxic chemicals. Climate activist Tim DeChristopher commented wryly on Chris Hayes’ show All In that during the speech, he was waiting for Obama to say ‘American ingenuity will find an alternative to water.’
Oil: Suffice it to ask: do plans for oil pipeline development have a place in a “climate action” plan? I think not, but there it is:
When it comes to the oil and gas sector, investments to build and upgrade gas pipelines will not only put more Americans to work, but also reduce emissions [my italics] and enhance economic productivity. For example, as part of the Administration’s effort to improve federal permitting for infrastructure projects, the interagency Bakken Federal Executive Group is working with industry, as well as state and tribal agencies, to advance the production of oil and gas…
“Clean Coal:” President Obama has already put nearly $6 billion into R&D on clean coal. His climate action plan proposed loan guarantees in the billions for further R&D in this highly controversial and expensive area.
Nuclear Power: The plan calls for investment in “emerging nuclear technologies,” such as small modular reactors. But the safety of nuclear power is very much in question – so much so that Germany opted to go full speed ahead on renewables after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, rather than invest in nuclear energy.
Without federal loan guarantees, it’s unlikely that any private investors would be willing to risk going into nuclear power. So why is Obama supporting another untested, very expensive and environmentally questionable technology, when wind, solar and other renewables are already tested and ready for scaling up?
How Much Will Be Left Over For Clean Renewables?
Of the $7.9 billion the plan pledges to invest in alternatives to conventional coal power, it’s unclear how much will actually go to renewables, as opposed to how much will go to the more problematic alternatives outlined above.
The point is not to condemn investment in cleaner coal, natural gas or nuclear out of hand, but to weigh investment in them against the alternatives. Are they cost effective? Do the environmental problems they bring outweigh their benefits? What are the real climate impacts they have, not only after the energy leaves the plant, but during the entire life cycle of the installation?
CERES recently came out with a study showing that “some of the lowest-cost, lowest-risk resources, like onshore wind, also emit the least carbon. And the energy option with the lowest level of risk and lowest costs of all is energy efficiency,” whereas “clean coal,” nuclear, and natural gas, carry the highest costs and risks.
Let’s be clear: I’m glad Obama finally decided to put climate change on the national agenda. The speech he delivered was powerful, clear and blunt about why climate change must be addressed.
But as so often with this President -- who clearly understands the issues at hand -- his words are louder than his actions. We should not be so grateful that he has, in the fifth year of his administration, finally gotten around to talking plainly about the most critical danger that humanity has ever faced that we fail to note the serious deficiencies in the program he laid out at Georgetown University.
And I acknowledge the tragedy our civilization is dealing with: a Flat Earth Society that reigns in the Congress and has cut any serious legislative action on climate off at the knees. I applaud Obama’s belated decision to leave their nonsense behind and wield the power of the executive instead.
But he could -- and should -- do more with that.