Rhein on Energy and Climate

After months of preparations President Obama has unveiled a new strategy for coping with climate change. In a strong policy message at Georgetown University he stressed the absolute necessity for the USA and the world to take more drastic joint action to prevent climate change from devastating the future of the earth and mankind.

This speech comes at the right time:

  • the USA is about to overcome its economic slowdown.

  • It is achieving independence from gas and oil imports.

  • It wants to present the Warsaw Climate Conference in early December the image of a country determined to fight against climate change at home and abroad.

In preparation the government had recently raised the estimate of the social (external) cost of C02 emissions from $ 22 to $ 36 pro ton, which should be seen in relation to present EU market prices of less than $ 5!

The basic thrust of the new US approach aims at reducing C02 emissions from power plants, with 40 per cent of US emissions by far the biggest polluter.

To that end, the Environmental Protection Agency will complete new federal pollution standards for new and existing power plants, which will no doubt lead to the closure of essentially all coal-fired installations to be replaced by gas-fired ones.

The US will also stop subsidising the construction of coal-fired power plants in emerging countries and try to prevent their financing by multilateral finance institutions like the World Bank, African or Asian Development Bank.

If the US were to succeed in also persuading China and India to step up efforts for swapping from coal to gas, Humanity might make a big, however temporary, leap towards a low carbon economy.

Enhancing energy efficiency of cars, trucks, appliances and federal buildings constitutes the second pillar of US climate strategy. To that end, the Environment Protection Agency will set appropriate efficiency standards.

Increasing the share of wind, solar and nuclear energy in the power mix is the third pillar. Thanks to attractive tax credits the USA has been able to double wind and solar installations during the past four years.

If these words are followed by acts the USA is likely to achieve its 2020 goal of reducing C02 emissions by 17 per cent over 2005, as promised at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. Though this would still leave the the USA with the highest per capita C02 emissions among the major countries,it would at least reverse the trend of ever rising emissions.

In terms of procedure, the President is determined to avoid the pitfalls of his first term when he had put too much trust in the Congress agreeing on a national emission trading system.

This time he is set to act by executive authority while continuing to appeal to Congress to adopt market-based measures like cap and trade, which several states, led by California, have already introduced on their own.

He has decided to take concrete actions in fields of federal competence that should serve as examples:

  • The Federal government will have to produce 20 per cent of its energy needs from wind and solar power by 2020.

  • The US army, the biggest American energy consumer, will have to install wind and solar electricity for the equivalent of two GW until 2020.

  • Federal land will be opened to facilitate the deployment of many more wind and solar power plants.

All this is a pragmatic, typically American approach.

If successful, it will put a curb on American emissions and give a boost to low- carbon investments.

But it does not tackle two big sources of emissions:

  • C02 emissions resulting from inadequate thermal insulation millions of homes and offices. The President has failed to announce federal efficiency standards or tax credits for thermal renovation of existing buildings.

  • Methane emissions – the most pernicious climate gas- from leakages in gas drilling and transport and cattle raising urgently call for federal action.

And it will hardly impact on global emissions. This requires China, Brazil,Indonesia, India, Russia, Japan, Korea and other big emitter countries to come on board.

To achieve this, USA and EU will need to work hand in hand and propose a series of pragmatic actions to be addressed at the Warsaw Climate Conference.

It will also be necessary to address global emissions

  • from deforestation, with 15 per cent the third biggest source of emissions after electricity, warming and transport, and the most dangerous one because of its devastating effects on bio-diversity and land conservation.

  • and air traffic, the fastest rising source of C02 emissions.

The institutional answers exist in the form of the REDD Programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which needs to be re-vitalised and the ICOA (International Organisation of Air Craft Carriers). But World leaders have to give guidance for effective agreements to be concluded and implemented.

With all due caution about the US political and technical ability to act more forcefully the Obama speech of 24th June 2013 signals hope to all those hoping for a much stronger American commitment against climate change.

However, there is no reason for euphoria. We are still at the beginning of a very long and arduous march towards a sustainable energy system on earth; and time is running out.

Brussels 27.06.2013 Eberhard Rhein

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Comments

  1. Dear friends,
    I have read with real interest these interesting paragraphs in this interesting article.
    The whole world is concerned about climate change and I think this is a concrete hope of improving the situation in our planet. Thank you for this article
    “The Federal government will have to produce 20 per cent of its energy needs from wind and solar power by 2020.
    The US army, the biggest American energy consumer, will have to install wind and solar electricity for the equivalent of two GW until 2020.
    Federal land will be opened to facilitate the deployment of many more wind and solar power plants”
    Have a nice day and excellent weekend
    Anna

  2. Americans can even improve it .. The US army can even be shrink for less energy consuming !

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