Faced w/ Global Warming Threat, Obama fudges EPA Carbon Reduction

By Juan Cole

President Obama’s decision to unleash the Environmental Protection Agency on US carbon dioxide emitters is a sea change in environmental policy and is extremely welcome to any who care about the planet. But its real significance does not lie in the targets for carbon dioxide reduction Obama has set. Those are way too modest. Its importance is that Obama is asserting the Federal government’s right to regulate CO2, which will come in handy when the American people get serious about fighting global warming.

Unfortunately, Obama gave in to the fossil fuel industries and managed to set a relatively modest goal of a 7% reduction in annual carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

But that isn’t how he put it. He is saying a 30% decrease from 2006 levels. But 2006 levels were extremely high. Basically, in 1990 the US pledged to reduce emissions from 5 billion metric tons a year, but instead ramped up to 6 billion metric tons a year of carbon dioxide emissions by 2006.

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Then the 2008 economic crash hit, throwing ordinary Americans into a deep recession from which they have not emerged, even if the bankers who caused the crisis have. They lost their jobs and most still haven’t gotten them back. They moved into cities, unable to afford the suburbs or its commute. They stopped driving. They reduced petroleum use from 21 million barrels a day to 19.5 mn b/d and haven’t gone back to guzzling gasoline with the so-called recovery.

So obviously, US carbon emissions fell. At the same time, old coal plants are increasingly uneconomical and are being replaced by wind farms or fracked natural gas. Either way, emissions are reduced, though in the case of wind they go to virtually zero over time, whereas natural gas is about half as dirty as coal assuming fracking it doesn’t release massive amounts of methane into the air. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, trapping the sun’s heat on earth rather than letting it radiate back into space. Some studies suggest that hydraulic fracturing of natural gas emits much more methane than had been estimated. So the real effect of the reduction in annual CO2 emissions by 1 bn. tons may not actually be very impressive once methane is accounted for.

Between reduced economic activity, the rise of substantial wind energy in Iowa, Texas and elsewhere, and the fracking revolution, US C02 emissions fell back to 5.2 bn metric tons a year, near 1990 levels. That is, between 2005 and 2012 the EPA maintains that there was a 16 percent fall in US CO2 emissions. So Obama’s announcement today is do to another 14 percent reduction over 16 years. Apparently he wants to get down to 4.2 billion metric tons of C02 a year by 2030.

A year. Every year. For the foreseeable future.

Americans sometimes argue that it doesn’t do any good for us to cut our emissions because, India. But India, a country of 1.3 billion people that is rapidly industrializing only emits 2 billion metric tons of CO2 a year. Obama’s plan doesn’t take us anywhere near India’s virtue.

I am not impressed with cutting a billion tons of CO2 annually. We still produce 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year! That’s 50 billion tons every decade! That will cook the earth. It needs to be zero and tout de suite– the goal year isn’t 2050, it is 2025.

Imagine a serial killer who polishes off 5 people a year. He vows to cut back, but can’t help himself and starts killing 6 a year. He hurts his ankle, though, and can’t be as active, so then he makes do with just 5. And then he promises that in just 16 years he’ll cut back again, to only 4 murders a year.

If you’re the police, or just a human being, you want him to cut back to zero murders a year. Now. In 16 years, at this rate he’ll have polished off 80 more people (in this metaphor, that means 80 metric tons of CO2). You aren’t impressed by the serial murderer’s self-control in cutting back slightly.

I have stopped even trying to understand American government. I have no idea what drives a bright person like Barack Obama to offer half measures in a global crisis. He has all along tried to mollify the fossil fuel industries with “all of the above.” Is this a way of moving fast enough to satisfy the environmentalists in the Democratic Party and energize them to vote in Novemeber, but not fast enough to anger Big Carbon to the point where donations to Democratic candidates rather fall off?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The world is likely going to a 9 or 10 degrees F. increase in temperature. It will be tropical everywhere and there will be no sea ice. Over a few thousand years, about a third of the world’s land mass will go under water. In this century we’ll lose the Egyptian Delta and much of Bangladesh. Although this change may be survivable, it is also possible that the climate will go chaotic because of that much heat. In that case the storm systems [i.e. hurricanes] could be so violent, long-lived and frequent as to make human life difficult. These are not just fallible computer projections of the old Club of Rome sort. The world has had this much CO2 in the atmosphere before, because of volcanic activity, and geologists have been studying the consequences. With the projections checked against real-world past developments, we can be pretty confidant of the conclusion.

So, by all means. Close a few of the 600 US coal plants for CO2 pollution. Push people to stop burning coal. Retrain the coal miners to do something that doesn’t destroy the earth. But this level of activity is not really consequential for the problem.

The one real hope for some amelioration is that solar energy falls in cost and rises in efficientcy so rapidly that everyone starts using them because it would be economically foolish not to. A solar revelotion is possible and probably depends more on the government and business making affordable financing available to home owners and businesses than on further technical innovations.

That is, the EPA rules may not be Obama’s biggest contribution to green energy. It might be the money he spent on solar energy research and development.

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Related video:

AFP: “US plans 30 percent cuts in power station carbon emissions”

11 Responses

  1. Seems to me that the operative mantra is “tickle the markets and hope for the best”. The notion of directly attacking the global warming menace like we attacked the Cold War Red Menace, with trillions invested nuclear warfare hardware, is just not an option. What about something financially comparable to the building of the Interstate Highway System or space exploration? No, that would be a betrayal of market faith.

    Of course if India and China ignore reliance on the markets and initiate deliberate state funded programs to reduce carbon emissions (as they are doing), we would applaud them, as long as they didn’t hinder imports of US made materials.

    As far as Republicans torpedoing the EPA goals, I think that once the natural gas/fracking/cabon industries tell the political money men to back off because those goals will turn gas into gold – the kind that shows up in GOP coffers..

  2. Juan, your are exactly correct as far as you go. But, using just pollution created within the United States as a calculation of U.S. pollution production is disingenuous. Many heavy industries and manufacturing have left the United States, but their products are consumed here. As such, the pollution created in the manufacture and shipping of those products must also be included in U.S. pollution figures if they are to have any meaning. When you do this you will find that pollution caused by the U.S. is rising more rapidly then almost anyone realizes or wants to admit.

    • Cam, the offshoring of industry was engineered by the Free Tradists in power. Normal Americans did not ask for that. Since that production overseas releases more carbon than what the equivalent production used to release here, the solution to that problem would be to abrogate all free trade agreements, withdraw from all free trade treaties and organizations, restore protectionism, and re-onshore all our captive production-in-exile.
      Free trade makes carbon skydumping reduction within America hard-to-impossible. Don’t believe it? Keep free trade and see what happens.

  3. We spent something like $1T for all our so-called wars on terror. And the president said recently that TERRORISM is the nation’s biggest threat.

    If he’d start saying that GW/CC is the biggest threat and spend $1T on energy R&D and on actually building some solar-arrays in Nevada or some other sunny place, we’d see some progress.

    I concur in Juan’s veryy pessimistic reading of USA’s political system. The oligarchs aren’t going to give up, and only a strict Constitutional Amendment (against corporate and other Fat Cat political spending) is likely to rescue the planet.,

  4. We’ve seen this play act before. Throw out a number that sounds impressive, but that would likely be met anyway even without a policy change. Then except for crocodile tears, cried for political effect, no one is really threatened.

    Yet, we have seen Obama quietly make changes that help a lot. Raising CAFE standards dramatically is responsible for a pretty good chuck of our oil demand decrease. I suspect this new policy will work similarly, with subtle behind the scenes incentives doing the actual heavy lifting.

  5. Since NOxs and methane and CFC-type compounds and black carbon soot have more global warming impact per molecule than
    CO2 does, and since those releases represent pure waste and loss of the molecules involved, perhaps it would make sense to try cutting their emissions to zero soonest while working through the political difficulties of CO2 reduction. We could also suck down more CO2 and sequester it in plant/soil systems with better encouragement and management of plant growth all over the world.

  6. The Chinese are apparently putting a cap on CO2 emissions as of 2016. This is obviously tied to Obama’s announcement. If this pans out, this is a big deal.

    link to reuters.com

    For anyone suggesting the U.S. should wait two years, it’s important to note that China has more alternative energy than we do and is installing solar at a furious pace: 12 gigawatts last year and 14 gigawatts this year and more to come in the next two years.

    This is going to be an interesting election year. Ironically, the oil boom in the U.S. will pretty much be done sometime between now and 2017. The inability to get much oil out of the fields in California from Fracking pretty much means we need other options anyway. With fossil fuel prices likely to continue rising and alternative energy prices continuing to drop rapidly for at least another ten years, we may see an economic boom large enough to help the American middle class while also addressing global warming and lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

  7. Unfortunately, this in an election year ploy to shore up his poorly informed base. It is like his response to the financial crisis, wind down the wars, the commitment to close Gitmo or raise the minimum wage — just a bunch of PR and soundbites to fool people that he is doing something.
    The man came to office with a mandate. The country was tired of war and voted for change. Instead we got the Manchurian candidate. I knew “game over”, when he appeared days after the election with Rubin and Summers.
    His environmental policies are brown, not green.

  8. Dare one offer a hardly original idea, that this is naught but a media smokescreen, a ploy to extend the noxious?

    A little observation from one who used to be a US EPA enforcement attorney, who actually used to, you know, ENFORCE the Clean Air Act and other environmental protection laws and regulations? At least until the Reagan people took over in 1980 and told us to stop sending them any new enforcement actions, because we were now a “customer service” agency, and our “customer” was INDUSTRY?

    First, this is not some “sweeping power gesture” by our Emperor. That “Congress” thing already delegated the power to do this, long ago. The legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases has been in the statutes and basic regulatory framework since at least 1990. And all the Obamites have done, with huge noise, is announce a “proposed rulemaking,” which is the first baby step in actually getting an enforceable regulatory tool in place. This is notice-and-comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedures Act, and when you get to paragraph 30 in the Big News articles, you learn that there’s 120 days of “public comment,” which is the first place the “regulated industries” can start whacking away at the puny limitations that are actually being announced, and the rest of us can try to defend the weak proposal. Once the rule goes final, in maybe 2015 (EPA has almost NEVER made any of the announced dates for final rule promulgation, due to litigation from all sides and of course LOBBYING which often changes/weakens the rule. Then each state (since under our “states rights” system) has to adopt its own reg structure that has to be reviewed and vetted by EPA for consistency, and then begins the process of drafting all the policies and memoranda that may lead, eventually, to actual enforcement of the sausage that’s produced, that will then have to be incorporated into permits that are also subject to notice, comment and lobbying, and litigation both administrative and judicial.

    Here’s the Great Big Important Version Of It All, from what usually is a more skeptical source: “Obama unveils historic rules to reduce coal pollution by 30%”!!!!!!!!!! link to theguardian.com

    And here’s a primer on the current Grand Gesture and what it really portends, with the following as the important take-away:
    On June 2, the EPA proposed a new rule to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s existing coal- and gas-fired power plants — the first-ever rule of its kind.

    “The proposal comes out on June 2, the final rule goes into effect in 2015″

    For now, this is only a proposal. The EPA will spend the next 120 days gathering comments from electric utilities, environmentalists, and anyone else who cares to weigh in. It will then work on a final regulation that takes effect in June 2015. States will then have until June 2016 to draw up plans to implement the rule. [Historically, these “deadlines” are highly “optimistic.”]

    The EPA will set different emissions targets for each state — which, when taken together, will aim to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power sector as much as 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. (That’s about 17 percent from 2013 levels.)

    States will be given a variety of options for cutting their emissions — using more efficient technology at coal plants, boosting their use of solar or wind or nuclear power, or even joining regional cap-and-trade systems that require companies to pay to emit carbon-dioxide. “A guide to Obama’s new rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants”,
    link to vox.com

    And the Wiki article on the Clean Air Act is actually pretty good, given the complexity of the thing, for those who care about the details: link to en.wikipedia.org

    So to me it looks like a nice head fake, to let the f____rs who are bleeding us and poisoning us keep at it until the ones who currently are profiting from all this live out their very special, very comfortable, very excessive lives… Please do not put up the noise about “this is the best that is politically possible.”

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