At Yale Environment 360, a group of environmental activists, scientists and thinkers — Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Rajendra Pachauri, Van Jones, Fred Krupp, and Joseph Romm– were asked to offer President-elect Obama advice on the environmental and energy priorities he should set for the first 100 days of his administration. Here’s what I suggested:
Obama’s top priority should be to stop the country from building any more traditional coal plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to do that today.
If we don’t stop building new dirty coal plants, we can’t meet the greenhouse gas targets needed to avoid catastrophic warming — targets Obama himself has embraced, including a 17 percent cut in total U.S. emissions by 2020, and then a further 80 percent cut by 2050. If developed countries can’t show that sustainable growth is possible without coal, then developing countries will never shift away from it. Ultimately, coal with carbon capture and storage may prove practical and affordable, but that technology is at least a decade or two away (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).
Fortunately, with energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal, plus other renewables, the country has more than enough cost-effective technologies to not only replace new coal, but to start shutting down existing plants (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“). Obama should use the economic stimulus package and a major 2009 Energy Bill to launch a massive effort to vastly improve energy efficiency, create clean electricity, and develop smart grid technology. The next priority is aggressively jumpstarting the transition to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Electricity is the only alternative fuel that can provide an abundant domestic, low-carbon, alternative fuel with a per-mile fueling cost that is considerably cheaper than gasoline or diesel (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“).
The third priority is a climate bill that sets a price on carbon. Such a price is crucial for stimulating the ingenuity of the marketplace. But such a bill won’t deal with existing coal plants or the transportation sector fast enough to meet urgent near-term emissions targets. Only smart regulations can do that, which is why they are a higher priority.