“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why today I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader, a global leader in the fight against climate change.”

- President Barack Obama, 6/25/2013

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

Climate change policy is back on the political agenda.  In a powerful speech at Georgetown University yesterday, President Barack Obama found the right words for the scale and urgency of the climate problem. He announced a Climate Action Plan outlining a wide array of actions his administration will take to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and strengthen America’s resilience to climate impacts. Throughout the speech, President Obama struck down critics’ claims, which have been bolstered by wealthy special interest groups, that climate protection poses a threat to the country’s economy. If implemented promptly, the plan can lead to much needed reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and re-engage the United States with other climate leaders in the international community.

However, the plan also reinforces the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which is at odds with the necessity for swift and significant emission reductions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. President Obama yesterday restated his pledge to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – an insufficient target given the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the U.S. contribution to global emissions on an absolute, historical, and per capita basis.

Perhaps the most important policy announcement in the President’s climate action plan is a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards by 2015 to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed carbon standards for new power plants over a year ago that would effectively halt the construction of new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Although the shale gas boom has already made it unlikely that new coal plants would be built anyway, the proposed regulation would nevertheless be an important step toward passing carbon standards for existing power plants that could accelerate the phase-out of coal power.

President Obama also called for the expansion of renewable energy, focusing efforts in areas where his administration can actively spearhead projects, including on public lands, military installations, and federally subsidized housing. These projects combined will contribute just over 1 percent of current U.S. installed power capacity, highlighting the need for additional legislation to secure much higher levels of renewable energy penetration. In an attempt to lead this effort, President Obama set a goal for the federal government to obtain 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. However this target is rather unambitious given the falling costs and strong potentials for wind and solar power in the U.S.

Much of President Obama’s plan for cutting GHG emissions hinges on the ongoing U.S. shale gas boom, which has dramatically reduced the cost of natural gas and led to widespread power plant fuel-switching from coal to gas. While this has led to significant short-term emission reductions, it will not be enough to achieve the needed level of U.S. climate mitigation. The President acknowledged that natural gas is a “transition fuel” to an “even cleaner economy of the future.” With the right measures at the core of U.S. energy plans, this long-term goal of a renewable-based energy system could be achieved much sooner.

The U.S. needs a clearer environmental strategy for the use of its shale gas resources. Recent studies have found that methane emissions at the site of fracking operations could actually result in higher life cycle GHG emissions from shale gas than from coal. President Obama did mention the need to address these emissions, but did not provide specifics on how. Depending on the outcome of  the ongoing EPA assessment of the impacts of shale gas operations, the administration should be prepared to institute stronger environmental regulation to ensure that the U.S. natural gas transition actually achieves the promised GHG reductions.

Much of the support for “clean energy” in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is still focused on promoting coal-based CCS and nuclear power, including a strong emphasis on exporting these technologies to emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil. It is unlikely, however, that these technologies will have the desired impact on emissions. CCS projects remain prohibitively expensive and have not yet been proven successful at the commercial stage.

And despite claims of a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States, only two new nuclear power plants have begun construction despite billions of dollars in federal subsidies. Even more importantly, the U.S. still has no plan for long-term nuclear waste storage, having abandoned the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada after more than two decades and $8 billion spent researching the site.

In addition to his measures to reduce GHG emissions, President Obama also laid out a plan to prepare the U.S. for unavoidable climate change impacts, some of which are already being felt across the country in the form of increased strength and frequency of storms, droughts, and wildfires. In addition to disaster preparedness and recovery plans for such events, the President also highlighted the important role of conserving natural ecosystems such as wetlands that help shield against the impacts of natural disasters.

In light of his renewed commitment to climate action, President Obama declared his intention to step up leadership in international climate processes, a welcome announcement after years of U.S. inaction on this front. Hopefully, strong renewable energy and climate initiatives in countries like China and India will put an end to finger-pointing between large GHG emitters and usher in a new era of international climate cooperation. Even more concretely, President Obama called for an end to U.S. public financing of new coal plants overseas.

Finally, President Obama urged citizens to “stand up and speak up” on climate change, and promised to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline if it is determined that the project would increase GHG emissions. The initial State Department environmental impact statement for the pipeline determined that the pipeline would not increase emissions, but the EPA review called for much stronger scrutiny of this finding. While the Obama Administration’s final decision on the Keystone pipeline is up in the air, he moved the discussion from a focus on energy independence and security to one that also includes climate. It is clear that the grassroots climate movement that formed around the project has played an important role in urging the President to prioritize climate action.

There is no question that yesterday’s speech by President Obama was an important step forward for U.S. climate action, less for the specific actions he outlined than for the renewed national focus on the issue. In a strong emotional appeal, President Obama posed the question of future generations: “did we do all that we could, when we had the chance, to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?” With regard to his Climate Action Plan alone, the answer is no. Hopefully, however, his strong words will spur the Congressional legislation necessary to achieve a truly comprehensive national climate and energy policy with renewable energy at its core and GHG targets consistent with the demands of science.

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