Rhein on Energy and Climate

In the last eight years US energy and climate policy has made impressive strides towards sustainability. This is due essentially to President Obama who has invested more in climate policy than any other US President, overcoming the ideological opposition from public opinion and Congress through recourse to executive orders.

Over decades US fossil energy consumption and green house emissions have kept soaring. With some 17 tons per capita emissions they were among the highest on earth, comparable to those of Gulf countries, Canada and Australia.

In 2014 US emissions have, for the first time ever, registered a decline. The government projects a decline of at least 27 per cent until 2030 compared to 2005. This would still leave per capita emissions at unacceptably high levels, about 50 per cent higher than those of the EU (seven tons).

The US policy is essentially based on raising energy efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency plays a crucial role, usually in conjunction with Transport and Energy Departments.

“Technical standards” are the name of their magical formula. For their definitionthey explore the optimum of energy and minimum of emissions (e.g. CO2 ) that can be “squeezed” out of a ton of coal, oil or gas, first with available and then with innovative technologies. On that basis they elaborate standards for cars, high duty vehicles, power plants and air planes, in close collaboration with the stakeholders from industry and trade unions. To facilitate their acceptance, the introduction takes place in phases stretching over several years.

This technique is similar to what the EU is also doing, in particular for cars. But while the EU operate in abstract terms of CO2 emissions (e.g. fleet average of 125 g per km)the US establishes consumption levels (gallons per 100 miles).

The US approach directly shows consumers the economic advantages stemming from the policy measures. The EPA keeps “selling” them.

An example are the latest efficiency and emission standards for medium and high duty vehicles,for which will be introduced progressively from 2016 to the mid-twenties. The extra costs of the vehicles will be recouped within only two years and yield an high profitability for vehicle owners.

The US has put priority on sectors consuming most fossil energy.

Road transport has been the first target, first cars and light weight vehicles, followed by that medium and heavy duty vehicles account for almost 23 per cent of US domestic green house gases.

Fossil-fuel power generation, in particular coal power plants, have been tackled in parallel. Fossil-fuel power plants account for almost one third of domestic green house gas emissions, the single most important consumer of fossil fuels.

Air transport, which accounts for 3 per cent of total US green house power emissions, will be the next target to be addressed domestically and internationally, in the context of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, with the hope of establishing standards before 2020. That would be a great performance considering the continuous increase of global air traffic.

The US approach is at least as pragmatic and cost-effective as the EU method of progressively reducing emissions from power plants, steel, glass, pulp/paper, copper, aluminium and other energy-intensive industries.

In addition, the US promotes biofuels, solar and wind, through a combination of tax credits, subsidies and feed-in tariffs. Though it has not not established mandatory federal targets, 11 per cent of national energy have been generated in 2013 by renewable sources, essentially hydro, wind and solar.

In conclusion, since 2008 the US has become one of the vanguards of global energy and climate policy. But it has a very long way to go bring US emissions down to acceptable level. It considers innovation and technology as the key to phasing out green house gas emissions by the end of the century and has properly adopted a strategic long-term approach.

Brussels 22.06 2015 Eberhard Rhein

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