Rhein on Energy and Climate

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would harm our children and future generations. America must lead the transition towards sustainable energy.” That is what President Obama has pledged to the American nation January 20th 2013, when he was officially sworn in for his second term.

Will he be more successful than during his first mandate when the Administration got lost in frustrating battles on emission cap&trade legislation with a Republican-dominated House of Representatives and public opinion for which the environment was not the first priority?

This time the prospects for effective action appear much better, provided the Administration exploits its window of opportunities for action during the next two years:

  • The country has lived through terrible climate catastrophes in 2012, with soaring heat waves, unprecedented droughts and devastating “Hurricane Sandy”, causing havoc in New York City and its surroundings.
  • Public opinion is calling for action, as demonstrated by the recent appeal from the Convention of Mayors.
  • The Administration has learned that to obtain results it must by-pass Congress. Fortunately, the US President disposes of much stronger executive powers to curb emissions than any European country, enabling it to go a long way without comprehensive legislation à la EU.The Clean Air Act empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) to set national pollution standards necessary to protect public health. It has done so in recent years to protect the ozone layer and curb sulphur, nitrogen and carbon monoxide emissions.

    Nothing prevents it from also tackling C02 emissions.

    It has started doing so by setting stricter emission standards fossil power plants,which account for two thirds of US C02 emissions, cars, trucks and the cement industry in 2012.

It should continue doing so for all sectors with high volumes of C02 emissions, including aviation and maritime shipping, if the international community failed to do the job.

But this requires political courage. The White House must make crystal clear that it will not tolerate further harassment of the E.P.A from ultra-conservatives.

We should closely follow the appointments of the Secretary for Energy and Transport as well as the top officials at the E.P.A. These will be a litmus test of the President’s determination to live up on his pledges on climate policy.

The USA ranks second after China in terms of green house gas emissions. Without these two countries massively reducing their emissions there is no hope for a long-term reversal of accelerating climate change. These two countries must get their act together. Their Presidents should meet rapidly and agree on the best strategies to follow and closer cooperation

But for any effective US-China “deal” the USA must adopt its domestic strategy. Climate change policy must start at home!

Energy efficiency and renewable energies remain crucial for success.

The USA wastes a huge amount of energy in households and commercial buildings, that account for 40 per cent of US energy consumption.

To eliminate such waste, due to insufficient thermal insulation, it needs to enact strict efficiency standards for all new buildings and launch an ambitious 20-year renovation programme for existing ones, which would give a powerful impetus to investment, innovation and employment in the construction sector.

Fighting climate change would thus generate substantial positive feed-back for the economy!

Beyond technical standards the Administration will have to change American perception of energy consumption/supply. The ongoing shift from coal to gas should significantly reduce US C02 emissions. But it has also reduced gas and oil prices to much much lower levels than in Europe, with an implicit risk of complacency!

The Administration should therefore send a strong message to the gas and oil industry that the “business as usual mentality” must end.

  • All direct or indirect subsidies to oil/gas production should cease.
  • The Administration should stop granting new licenses for drilling oil and gas on public land, which would raise international gas and oil prices.
  • The Administration should impose an unlimited moratorium on the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipe-line, which would link the tar sand oil fields in Alberta Province/Canada to the US refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
  • It should urgently review its policy line on oil/gas exploration in the Arctic Sea, which appears to be more risky than assumed.

If the USA is serious in tackling domestic climate policy it can regain international leadership and form alliances with like-minded countries, the EU in the first place. China other emerging countries will no longer be able to hide behind US in-action and obstruction of binding climate agreements.

China, USA and EU account for close to two thirds of global C02 emissions; it is therefore up to these three giant “polluters” to assume global leadership in reversing the inexorable trend towards ever higher emissions. And there is no time to be lost!

Obama will go into history if he succeeds in weaning off American citizens from their addiction to fossil energy. Per capita C02 emissions of more than 17 tons per year, more than twice EU and Chinese levels, are not sustainable for the USA or the world.

Let us hope he will fully use the opportunity!

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels.

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