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By Jason Anderson, Head of EU Climate and Energy Policy, WWF European Policy Office
Today the Obama administration will come out with a draft rule on power plants that represents its latest attempt to make headway reducing greenhouse gas emissions despite the failure of Congress to take action (indeed, despite the histrionic antipathy towards action among many of them).
Inevitably, it will get blasted by those forces married to fossil fuels who enjoy the sound of their own rhetoric on economics and liberty, which is best enjoyed with the oceans rising up around your ankles. But with midterm elections coming up and climate not top of US politicians’ priority list, political support isn’t guaranteed even among many Democrats.
In other words, Obama is walking into a minefield. Which raises the question, if politicians are risk-averse and sensitive to election outcomes, why would he be doing this? Is it possible there’s some meat on this bone?
EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard would’ve liked to have had the same benefit of the doubt when announcing the EU’s 2030 plan in January. Environmentalists jumped on its inadequacy. In reply, Hedegaard said that it was easy to be an observer but hard to be a politician, and invited the NGOs to go soak our heads. She claimed that the 40% target was a position requiring serious political effort, and that a more ambitious proposal would have no chance of overcoming political opposition.
Be that as it may, the differences between the US and EU situation are informative. In the US case, climate action has been hard to come by, with the last president spending eight years basically working in the opposite direction entirely. Meanwhile, the current president gets little credit for any reductions in emissions, with most people ascribing that entirely to the rush for shale gas.
In fact, according to the US government’s 2014 climate action report, the effect of current policy and trends, including increased use of natural gas, would be to see US emissions drop 5.3% compared to 2005 levels in 2020. However, they have a commitment of reducing by 17%. Bearing in mind the US GDP is rising and its population grows by more than a million people per year, new policy will have to make significant efforts to close the gap, of which the power plant rule is the most important element.
In Europe, meanwhile, GHG emissions were basically stable from 1990-2004, aside from the post-1990 implosion in Eastern countries. A shift from coal to gas played an important a role initially in keeping emissions low, but, as the US is also now finding, that shift only gets you so far before much more is needed. It is no coincidence that the year the Kyoto Protocol went into force, 2005, is when EU emissions clearly took a permanent downward path – concern about the failure to dent emissions in the previous years led to serious efforts at new policy lest we completely miss our Kyoto targets.
But Europe overcompensated – we let countries and companies buy overseas offset credit to temper costs of compliance. Together with the economic downturn the result is that the EU can now either significantly increase emissions to 2020, or hold excess credits over to the following period thereby reducing real effort to 2030. The combination of policy already in place and excess credits carried over could mean that the additional effort from 2020 to 2030 resulting from the current EU debates is negligible.
Solutions to the EU’s problem include adding an approach being pursued, ironically, in both the US and Canada – an emissions performance standard for power plants, which focuses minds on the problem at hand (emissions) and not on the theoretical solution (movement of overabundant paper credits, often of dubious provenance). An EPS will play an important role in the post-2020 target Obama has promised to deliver before the UN deadline in March 2015 (cue jeering from the domestic better-dead-than-green coalition).
So, the historic bad guys are trying to make up for lost time while the historic good guys are resting on their laurels. In both cases politicians trying to get something done are lightning rods for criticism from all sides – old-fashioned industry (and their friends in government) emboldened by the death of peak oil and smelling blood around climate action, and everyone else, who worry that the outcome of the political process is generally to pitch beach umbrellas in the face of a tsunami.
But neither should we expect government to build solid fortifications on shifting sand. Whatever the deficiencies, arguably we’re finally starting to see what looks like a the foundation of real climate action – China, the EU and the US are lining up behind new efforts, along with dozens of other significant economies, right in the run-up to a new big global agreement. If politicians make the calculation that they can’t push as far as we want, then that’s an indication we’ve got more work to do on all fronts.