Obama’s Climate Plan – An Ambitious Plan that Isn’t Ambitious Enough

President Obama gave a major climate change speech (full video and transcript here) and released a Climate Action Plan on Tuesday. It’s just one speech and there is a lot to work to implement the plan that he has laid out, but the plan and the speech far surpassed my expectations. There isn’t much more that the Executive Branch can do on climate change without help from Congress.

Here’s the biggest climate news from the plan and the speech: “I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.” The rhetoric here – “dumping of carbon pollution” – is amazing. This is the single biggest step the administration can take without Congress; WRI estimates that such regulation can make up 48 percent of the emissions gap between business as usual and the administration goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent by 2020. So it’s a big deal. However, neither Obama’s speech nor his plan specifies how strict these new standards will be or how they will be implemented and there is sure to be legal and political challenges to the new standards. The specifics of the plan will end up determining the final climate impact, and Obama has not yet made this clear; all the plan says is: “The President has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to build on state leadership, provide flexibility, and take advantage of a wide range of energy sources and technologies including many actions in this plan.” If you’re curious on more details of how power plant regulation could work, here is an NRDC report on how this could work.

Regulating carbon pollution from power plants is just the start. For a full list of initiatives contained in the plan, see Wonkblog, Grist, or Climate Progress; I’m just going to list a few of the most important.

Supporting existing efforts, the plan promises to better measure methane emissions from natural gas extraction. However you feel about how fracking could destroy local water sources, any climate benefits from switching from coal to natural gas (coal is much more carbon intensive than natural gas) could be lost if methane leakage is not controlled.

Obama declared a goal of doubling electricity fueled by renewable energy by 2020. This is tough for the President to affect without Congressional support, but Obama promised to approve permits for renewable energy on public lands that would supply 20 gigawatts of additional energy. He also said the federal government would set a new target of sourcing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources

Adaptation to climate change is another large component of the plan. Most of the concrete steps relate to planning continued research for specific vulnerabilities to climate change: learning from Hurricane Sandy and other tropical storms, resilience in the health sector, assessing agricultural vulnerability, managing drought, reducing wildfire risks, and preparing for future floods. Climate change is happening and the plan recognizes this reality.

Last (of the points that I’ll discuss) is a renewed effort to promote international negotiations on climate change. One proposed way to do this is to combat short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which have severe climate impact and are much more prevalent in developing countries. Another focus point is reducing emissions from deforestation, which amount to as much as 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Last, Obama also said that the United States will not support coal fired power plants in developing countries (which would appear to be at odds with current World Bank policy).

The Really Surprising Stuff

In addition to these more mainstream actions, Obama discussed a few issues that are near and dear to the hearts of climate advocates. First, regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama said: “Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” I never expected him to mention Keystone and his statement Tuesday will make it difficult (but not impossible) for him to ultimately approve the Pipeline. Second, he spoke directly to climate advocates: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth…Make yourself heard on this issue.” Divestment from fossil fuels and the Keystone XL Pipeline have been two of the major issues adopted by 350.org and other climate advocates. With these remarks, Obama is speaking directly to those involved in advocacy and encouraging their actions. With national polls showing that the environment and climate change are not a top priority (the economy and jobs are), he needs support to continue his climate initiatives.

A Couple Caveats

The big caveat is the lack of specificity as to how the plan will be implemented, particularly with EPA regulation of power plants. There are no specific standards mentioned and, although this aspect of the plan could have enormous impact, it could also have little impact if standards aren’t strict enough.

The other issue in the speech that makes me uneasy is the President’s full embrace of natural gas: “And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.” I think the climate benefits of natural gas (and fracking) are debatable. And I think that there isn’t enough information about the impact of fracking on local water sources. Increased fracking will likely hurt some people.

All in All…

I was amazed by the ambition of the plan and the speech. It comes about five years later than I wanted and still isn’t going to be enough to allow the USA to meet emissions guidelines from the Kyoto Protocol (20 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2020), but in the current political climate, I couldn’t have hoped for any more. I guess that’s a sign of how far expectations have fallen that I see doing less than the minimum as exceeding expectations.

I’m torn. On the one hand, this is a big step and Obama (as well as all the advocacy groups that have been pushing him) deserves credit. I hope that he feels support from environmental groups to counterbalance all the negative comments that will be said in the coming weeks by fossil fuel advocates. This speech and this plan should be celebrated. On the other hand, the devil is in the details with this plan and implementation will determine just how much it ends up cutting emissions. Obama needs to know that climate can’t be something that he simply makes a big speech about and then ignores. I can’t imagine a more ambitious plan, but it still isn’t ambitious enough.