The Obama Administration took the most serious step toward limiting carbon pollution of any in history. And besides its proposed rules for power plant carbon pollution, the White House has already helped bring about an explosion in solar and wind power, along with very strong fuel economy rules negotiated with the major automakers.
But the grade the President merits for his climate policies to date is still an “I” for Incomplete until he takes two more major steps: regulate methane leaks from the natural gas production/delivery system and negotiate a serious international climate deal for the December 2015 climate talks in Paris.
Let’s start with natural gas. On Monday, the EPA proposed a 25 percent cut in electric utility CO2 emissions by 2020 (vs 2005 levels). The proposal is flexible enough to allow that target to be achieved by replacing dirty coal power with a combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, and, yes, natural gas.
Fuel switching to natural gas is a sub-optimal strategy for a few reasons. We know that U.S. natural gas consumption must peak sometime between 2020 and 2030 to preserve a livable climate. So it makes little or no sense to spend any substantial amount of money on new natural gas production, delivery, and power systems simply to meet a near-term 2020 target.
The best strategy is clearly transitioning straight to energy efficiency and renewables like solar and wind, technologies that are already cost-effective enough to hit the 25 percent target without any help from natural gas — especially since we already about half the way to the target. But much of the electric utility emissions reductions we have seen to date have come from replacing coal with gas power and much of the rest of the target will certainly be met the same way because our energy policy remains shortsighted.
That brings us to the final problem with gas. Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, some 86 times (to as much as 105 times) as effective at trapping heat as CO2. So even very low leakage of methane from the natural gas system wipes out its advantages over coal power for decades. The recent scientific literature — based on actual measurements of methane — reveals that methane leakage is actually quite high.
But the new EPA rules focus on power plants, by necessity, and so they don’t encompass the leaks in a methane production. Unfortunately, as a comprehensive 2014 Stanford study reconfirmed, “America’s natural gas system is leaky.” The news release explained, “A review of more than 200 earlier studies confirms that U.S. emissions of methane are considerably higher than official estimates.” So high, in fact, that, as I calculated at the time, “By The Time Natural Gas Has A Net Climate Benefit You’ll Likely Be Dead And The Climate Ruined.”
In April, Team Obama released a preliminary strategy to cut methane emissions from a sources such as landfills, agriculture, and the fossil fuel industry. But the plan only calls for the EPA to study what kind of regulations might be necessary. That isn’t enough.
We are long past the time when anyone should be naïve enough to believe that voluntary compliance by industry can address the greenhouse gas problem. We know what the industry best practices are for the lowest emitters. It’s time to make those mandatory ASAP — if we are truly serious about fighting climate change.
Finally, climate change is a global problem. Inaction by the United States has crippled international action in the past, and given other big polluters such as China an excuse for their own inaction. Obama’s proposed power plant rules — along with his other climate policies to date — have helped put the country close to the path needed to achieve the U.S. goal that Obama promised the world five years ago: a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2020 (versus 2005 levels).
Is that enough for a deal? The Europeans have been the most aggressive in cutting carbon pollution to date. The Hill just reported, “Greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) continued to decline in 2012, falling 19 percent below 1990.” So getting them to agree to further cuts should be the least of the problems facing Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made a 2015 climate deal a top priority.
China is the world’s biggest emitter by far — and the fastest-growing in absolute terms. It has worked as hard behind the scenes is anybody to stop a global deal.
But now it seems clear that they want to curtail coal consumption simply because air pollution has gotten out of hand. And there are signals coming from China that suggest they are looking at capping total carbon emissions some time in the 2020s.
And, of course, the dangerous effects of climate change are becoming more obvious every year (to those whose heads aren’t stuck in the ground). And we are coming closer and closer to irreversible tipping points according to scientific observation and analysis, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. On top of that, 2014 and then 2015 are poised to be the hottest years on record, if an El Niño forms this year.
Given these unique confluence of circumstances, if Obama can’t leverage his policies and commitments to get a serious international deal, it will be prima facie evidence that he didn’t do enough. And future generations living with the multiple catastrophic impacts of a ruined climate will judge him, and all of us, as failures. And deservedly so.