Early in June of this year, President Obama announced, to great fanfare and controversy, his new plan to fight climate change. As he had promised, the plan depends not on Congressional action (which is not forthcoming) but on direct administrative action.
The White House website describes the plan, but not in very reader-friendly terms. Although the page is full of lots of charts and graphics and links, it is hard to see just what, exactly, Mr. Obama has done.
Rather than summarizing the plan as a plan, the website is a lecture on the problem of climate change and the progress the Administration has made towards its goals. Some of this progress includes the steps of the President’s new plan. Other progress bulletins involve events that are several years old or not directly Mr. Obama’s doing.
For example, since he took office, the United States has tripled its wind generation of electricity and increased its use of solar ten times over. That is worth celebrating, and President Obama’s policies may have helped, but he could hardly have ordered it.
As a public service, I’ve waded through the morass.
The cornerstone of the plan, and the only component actually announced in June, is a new set of proposed rules through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulating and limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. This proposal builds on earlier proposed rules to regulate and limit emissions from any future coal-fired plants.
More on these rules shortly.
But the President has referred to executive actions (plural) in discussing his plan. The White House website does, indeed, boast of several other points to the plan, but these took place earlier this year or late last year.
These other actions address vehicle fuel efficiency and energy infrastructure, electrical efficiency, electricity from renewable sources, national resiliency in the face of climate changes already occurring, and plans to work with other countries to reduce emissions abroad.
Here is my summary of the Administration’s domestic action steps over the past year towards combating climate change, organized chronologically:
- September, 2013, the EPA proposed carbon dioxide regulations for new coal-fired power plants.
- December, 2013, the President signed a memorandum directing the Federal government to buy a certain minimum of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
- December, 2013, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) committed money to improve energy efficiency and renewable energy use in rural areas.
- January, 2014, the President signed a memorandum creating a Quadrenniel Energy Review (QER) process. This means that a group of high-level officials will communicate with various experts and stakeholders about energy and submit a report to the President every four years.
- February, 2014, the President told the EPA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles. This follows on earlier fuel efficiency increases.
- March, 2014, the Administration announced a Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions, largely through preventing leaks and unnecessary venting from pipelines, wells, and landfills.
- May, 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) said it will support training programs through community colleges for future solar industry worker
- June, 2014, the EPA proposed carbon dioxide regulations for existing coal-fired power plants.
- Since June, 2014, the DOE has raised a number of standards relating to the efficiency of electrical appliances and equipment.
It’s hard to avoid being underwhelmed with a few of these steps. The new QER process sounds fancy, after all, but it’s only a report. Don’t we have enough reports? Likewise, virtually none of these steps will go into full effect immediately. They aim to cut emissions in various ways by some future date. The EPA’s new rules are only in the proposal stage.
However, this is the President acting on his own without Congress, a condition that, by design, renders the American president almost powerless. Further, even these minimal steps–chiefly the new EPA rules–are being fought, tooth and nail, by the fossil fuel industry. This may be all we can get right now, and it is far from certain we will even get this.
On the other hand, the President’s plan, if it is allowed to stand, could do a lot of good.
The EPA’s new rules should reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by 30%, compared to 2005 levels. That does not count reduction due to regulation of new plants–a complication I won’t touch either, though it is probably significant.
What does this 30% mean?
According to the Washington Post, existing power plants contribute 38% of US carbon dioxide production and are therefor the single largest source of American CO2 (transportation comes in second). Carbon dioxide, in turn, accounts for 82% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions–some of the others, such as methane and CFCs have a more powerful greenhouse effect, but there is so much less of them that carbon dioxide is still the dominant problem.
So, we’re looking at removing 30% of 38% of 82%. Roughly speaking, that works out to almost one tenth of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions which Mr. Obama has turned off with the stroke of a pen.
I don’t have the numbers to calculate the results of his other actions, but most of them involve reducing demand for electricity and gasoline, thus hitting the first and second largest sources of domestic carbon dioxide again. The Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions could also be very significant, given how powerful that methane’s greenhouse effect is.
The United States is one of the most serious global-warmers in the world, so a major reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions is significant on the global scale.
Perhaps just as important, for the US to reduce its emissions gives it the moral credibility to ask China and India to do the same–countries that are just now industrializing and are understandably reluctant to give up their turn at the wealth that using fossil fuel brings.
Could the United States do more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Yes–and indeed, it must do more, and soon. But there is a huge amount of political and economic weight being thrown into the US doing nothing at all.
Do not forget that one of the reasons the President is about to be sued by Congress is his action on climate change (more particularly, his attempt to use his own authority to get around Congress’ inaction on the subject).
Climate change mitigation is a dead issue in some Congressional districts, especially those where the coal industry is economically important. It’s to the point that, in some races, supporting carbon dioxide regulation is something mudslinging candidates can accuse each other of.
(Yes, regulating coal plants could cost some communities money they can’t afford to lose, but doing nothing about climate change would be far worse for far more people)
The regulations themselves are still only proposals. The EPA must go through an internal review process before finalizing the rules. The public comment period for the regulation of new power plants has closed. The comment period for the newer rule, the one regulating emissions from existing power plants, is still open.
This means that there are multiple fronts along which the coal industry–or politicians who simply dislike anything Mr. Obama does on principle–can attempt to defeat the regulations.
They can comment, as members of the public.
They can lobby for passage of bills to undermine the rules, or, more broadly, the whole EPA.
They can attempt to ensure that no climate-friendly politician ever gets elected again, so that when Mr. Obama leaves office, his successors can undo his work.
But, the American people can respond by the same means.
Comment on the proposal. Contact your Congresspeople. Support environmentalist candidates and VOTE.
If President Obama’s plan sticks–and if it receives widespread public support–there might be more good progress on the way later. If not…this might be our last chance to get started.