President Obama's energy policy won the support of many Americans. (Source: Flickr.com, Photo by Tyler Driscoll for Obama for America)

After months of retrograde discussion of energy policy on the campaign trail, the United States woke up on Wednesday to a surprisingly happy conclusion: U.S. voters have rejected candidate Romney’s fossil fuels-only approach to energy policy and embraced the new course set by President Obama in his first term.

It was the fossil fuel industry itself, fueled by millions of dollars from the coal and oil industries, that decided more than a year ago to turn the 2012 election into a crusade—and a referendum.  Bolstered by an unprecedented war-chest and exaggerated attention to a few failed solar loans by the Obama administration, the energy establishment made its election preference abundantly clear, giving American voters a clear choice. It was an all-in bet by the “drill-baby-drill” crowd—and one they decisively lost.

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elections, energy, energy future, energy policy, Obama, United States

As conventional oil – oil extracted using traditional oil wells – becomes increasingly uneconomical to extract, unconventional sources are being turned to as a solution to meet the global demand for petroleum-based energy sources. One unconventional source shown to have abundant reserves is oil sands, also known as tar sands. Canada is home to one of the largest oil sands deposits on earth.  Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from this supply, the substance, which resembles cold molasses when at room temperature, is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

With the addition of oil sands to its proven reserves list, Canada is now second place amongst oil-producing nations, behind Saudi Arabia. Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from oil sands, the topic is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

Bitumen, the substance found in oil sands, was at one time light crude oil. Geologists theorize that tens of millions of years ago, oil was pushed up during the formation of the Rocky Mountains, allowing it to reach depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive, which degraded the oil to bitumen. Bitumen is not oil or tar, but a semi-solid degraded form of oil. Once extracted, bitumen deposits can be sold as raw bitumen, or upgraded to synthetic crude oil frequently refined for use in essentials such as asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel. The upgrading is done by increasing the ratio of hydrogen to carbon by either removing carbon (coking) or adding hydrogen (hydro-cracking).

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development, green economy, negotiations, Obama, oil sands, Pipeline, Protest, Tar Sands, United States

Metros with clusters across the United States

There are 2.7 million clean economy jobs in the United States, according to a recently released report by the Brookings Institution entitled “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment.” Brookings hosted an event to announce the release, at which one panel explored the fascinating and increasingly important role that Regional Innovation Clusters (RICs) play in fostering the clean economy.

The report shows that the majority of green jobs (defined as jobs with a direct or indirect environmental benefit) are in conventional sectors like manufacturing, waste management, and mass transit. But the fastest growing sector is clean technology, which includes renewable energy, smart grid, and energy efficiency. While 64 percent of green jobs in the U.S. reside within the 100 largest metropolitan areas (which hold 66 percent of the U.S. population), the same metros hold an outsized 74 percent of the clean tech jobs created from 2003 to 2010. The Brookings report takes this as evidence that metros have strong industry clusters that boost clean economy growth.

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brookings, clean economy, cleantech, clusters, economic development, emissions reductions, energy, energy efficiency, finance, green economy, green jobs, Green Technology, Innovation, low-carbon, nortech, Obama, regional innovation clusters, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable, technology series, United States

President Obama sets a new goal: generate 80% of U.S. electricity by clean energy sources by 2035. Source: WhiteHouse.gov

Last Tuesday, in his second official State of the Union address, President Obama signaled a new approach on energy – one clearly calculated to attract the widest possible support in the 112th Congress.

It sounds like this:

[C]lean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.  So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal:  By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

The President’s remarks echo recent Washington chatter about a federal “clean energy standard” – a target for how much electricity must be generated from renewable sources and other fuels supposed to be clean, at least relative to the traditional coal plants that currently produce 45 percent of the nation’s power. A clean energy standard, many analysts argue, would appease Republicans who favor coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and nuclear power. And although natural gas has yet to find the champions in Congress that coal and nuclear have, the natural gas industry believes that their fuel should not be left out of a renewable or clean energy standard either.

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112th Congress, CCS, clean energy standard, emissions reductions, natural gas, nuclear, Obama, renewable energy, renewable energy standard, renewable portfolio standard, State of the Union

On April 15, energy ministers from across the Americas gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, or ECPA. Initiated last year by U.S. President Barack Obama, ECPA brings together countries to collectively pursue voluntary initiatives covering renewable energy, energy efficiency, infrastructure development, and similar issues.

Last week’s meeting received supporting statements from several high-ranking officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined seven U.S. priority areas, from legal and technical advice for Caribbean states, to scientific research on oil shale, to financial support of urban development projects. The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, announced plans for an additional US$3 billion a year in renewable energy and climate projects by 2012. And various countries have pledged to participate in projects ranging from rural electrification to research and technology transfers, with many more projects expected to be formally organized in the near term.

All of these announcements highlight the importance of the Americas in leading the way to a clean energy strategy that addresses climate change—with or without a binding international climate agreement in place.

Here at Worldwatch, we have been thinking about these underlying issues for the past year and recently launched a new effort to partner with Caribbean countries to develop low-carbon roadmaps. The projects will include renewable resource mapping, technical and economic assessments, and, perhaps most importantly, an analysis of existing and proposed policies and regulations. The roadmaps will help countries coordinate their ongoing activities and increase international confidence and investment in low-carbon development strategies in the region.

Up first in this effort? The Dominican Republic, which has shown excitement for the project at all levels, including from the nation’s Energy Commission. We plan to start our work there this summer. The second country will be Jamaica. Last week, we met with the Honorable Laurence Broderick, Minister of State in the Ministry of Mining and Energy of Jamaica, and he invited us to visit his country and begin working on the issues. We then hope to extend the project to Haiti, providing coverage of the major islands of the Greater Antilles. Read more about these projects as they unfold, here on the ReVolt blog.

Photo of the Dominican Republic by Flickr/ Beadmobile

Supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government, Worldwatch currently works on Sustainable Energy Roadmaps for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica.

developing countries, Dominican Republic, energy efficiency, Haiti, Jamaica, low-carbon, Obama, renewable energy

With the outcome of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 relatively positive with lower than expected jobs created but job losses slowing and GDP no longer shrinking and even growing again, attention is shifting to the federal budget proposed by President Obama which, in response to the activities of the past year, would offer more government support to economic stimulus efforts.

In light of the return to annual budget deficits beginning with $194 billion (2010 dollars) in 2002 and reaching $1.4 trillion in 2009, President Obama announced a federal budget that trims inefficient programs wherever possible, while he insisted that the government must continue to “lay a new foundation for lasting growth” and “build on the largest investment in clean energy history.”  Indeed, during today’s continued economic uncertainty, the federal government could perform a vital role in pushing the economy and investing in America – and that requires money.

“…energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”  – President Obama, State of the Union 2010

The New York Times has a great visual for the federal budget in fiscal year 2010 (FY10) and FY11 for reference.  Take a look at the bottom right hand corner of that figure – energy.  One of those green areas refers to a modest increase (by 5 percent) of investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Most of this money would fall under the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) with increases in support, for example, in cutting edge clean energy technology R&D (solar, wind, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and hydrogen and fuel cell technologies), state clean energy and energy efficiency programs, and international coordination and best practice sharing.  The US Department of Agriculture is also looking for a minor increase (less than 2 percent) from FY10 to support mainly biomass for biofuels (see: Red, White, and Green: Transforming U.S. Biofuels) but also biopower, i.e. biomass used for electricity.

Appropriations for EERE increased from $2.16 billion in FY09 to $2.24 billion in FY10.  For the next fiscal year, starting in October of 2010, Obama proposed a $120 million increase for EERE to $2.36 billion for FY11.  For some perspective, the Recovery Act of 2009 pumped $16.8 billion into energy efficiency and renewable energy – that’s nearly 8-times the planned 2011 budget.  A portion of this FY11 increase would address the problems the DOE has had in dispersing Recovery Act money to states – hiring and training the manpower needed to administer the funds at both the federal and state level.  For more information on the obstacles impeding weatherization efforts, check out this DOE inspector general’s report.

Investing in a clean energy economy is about planting the seeds to spur on and support innovation.  And, as DOE Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi said recently at a briefing in Washington, D.C., government investment is about encouraging high impact innovation – exploration of cutting edge technologies, many of which will probably fail, but the few that succeed could become true game-changers.

Is this budget enough to turn the economic tides and re-ignite a struggling economy based on clean energy?  I don’t know.  But it certainly is another step in the right direction.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, energy, energy efficiency, federal budget, Obama, renewable energy
COP15-People-queue-to-ent-001

COP 15 attendees queue outside the Bella Center

The Copenhagen UN climate conference ended last Saturday with a weak agreement, not the groundbreaking treaty many had hoped for. Not only did Worldwatch send its biggest team ever to the Danish capital; with more than 100 heads of governments and many more parliamentarians and dignitaries, COP-15 became the largest assembly of world leaders in diplomatic history. The Copenhagen conference had been planned out for two years in many small informal and large official meetings, following the 2007 Bali Action Plan in which nations had agreed to finalize a binding agreement this December. The outcome falls far short of this original goal. Delegates only “noted” an accord (“the Copenhagen Accord”) struck by the United States, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa that has two key components: first, it sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times; second, it proposes $100 billion in annual aid for developing nations starting in 2020 to help them reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

2 degrees Celsius is seen by mainstream science as a threshold for dangerous climatic changes including sea-level rise and accelerated glacier melt, as well as more intense floods, droughts, and storms. Many scientists also believe that a majority of worldwide ecosystems will struggle to adapt to a warming above that mark, and more recently have set the threshold even lower, at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The accord, however, lacks any information on how this goal of preventing “dangerous” climate change, which had already been set by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention, would be achieved. It is generally assumed that in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, worldwide emissions have to peak before 2020 and have to be at least halved before mid-century, but the Copenhagen accord doesn’t outline global emissions scenarios nor individual countries’ pathways towards either of these two goals. Regarding the money for developing countries, the declaration does not specify precisely where the $100 billion annual support would come from nor who would profit from it.

Accordingly, the assessment of the accord was mixed. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the Copenhagen Accord as “an important beginning” and U.S. President Obama said that “for the first time in history, all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action on the threat of climate change.” Others, like German chancellor Angela Merkel, could hardly hide their disappointment. “The decision has been very difficult for me. We have done one step, we have hoped for several more,” Merkel said. Likewise, many U.S. commentators considered the deal just a small step forward, however an essential one in the domestic context. A friend of mine wrote to me that “without the accord, the Senate process would be dead. I think we can push forward domestically with the elements in the accord.”

The next COP is set for November 2010 in Mexico City, with a likely high-level preparatory meeting mid-year on invitation of the German government. “We have a big job ahead to avoid climate change through effective emissions reduction targets, and this was not done here,” said Sergio Serra, Brazil’s climate change ambassador. Worldwatch might have to send an even bigger team to the Mexican capital.

Bali Action Plan, China, China & India, Climate Change, COP15, Copenhagen, Copenhagen Accord, emissions reductions, India, negotiations, Obama, South Africa, UNFCCC
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As a former Minister of the Environment turned Chancellor, Angela Merkel had already proven those wrong who surmised that environment positions are a dead end to high-rising political aspirations; now she became only the second German politician (after Konrad Adenauer, the first head of a German government after the Second World War, in 1957) who received the honor to address the U.S. Congress; and as a widely respected leader on environmental issues who is, at the same time, the leader of a conservative party, she would be well positioned to appeal to cautious Republicans when talking about climate change and energy reformation—at least I had hoped so in a recent interview with Reuters.

Angela Merkel in her speech on Capitol Hill yesterday, just weeks after her reelection for a second term (this time as a leader of a center-right coalition) was moved by the honor and the standing ovations she received from U.S. lawmakers even before she had started her speech. Following up on her promises, she spent a good portion of her talk on climate change, urging Congress and the Obama administration to take bold steps to address the issue, in her view one of the “great tests” of the 21st century. “We all know we have no time to lose,” she said.

But her remarks did not resonate with most Republicans. While Merkel’s remarks were met with passionate applause from Democrats, almost the entire Republican side—including key swing voters, such as Independent Senator Dick Lugar from Indiana and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine—remained silent. When the Chancellor pointed out that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would spur economic and jobs growth worldwide, the same partisan gulf occurred.

Already earlier in the day, Republicans had refused to attend the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s markup of Senators John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) important climate bill (Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act). The only one out of seven Republican Senators on the committee who showed up for the meeting was Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) who briefly expressed the Republican opposition to the committee’s proceedings. In their view, the Environmental Protection Agency has not done enough economic analysis of the Kerry-Boxer bill. Democrats, however, accuse their opponents of pure gamesmanship pointing out that the Kerry-Boxer bill is modeled after the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which passed the House side of Congress earlier this year and underwent intense economic scrutiny, including from the EPA.

Angela Merkel can tell a great success story about green jobs creation in Germany. The country—home to Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Opel, and Volkswagen—is on track to have more people employed in the environmental technology sector than in the automobile industry as early as 2015. It has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% since the beginning of the 1990s. But it seemed yesterday as if only half of the U.S. representatives were ready for Merkel’s optimism—one that has often been echoed by President Obama in the past.  Regarding the Copenhagen UN climate summit, Merkel said: “I’m convinced, once we in Europe and America show ourselves ready to adopt binding agreements, we will also be able to persuade China and India to join in ….No doubt about it, in December, the world will look to us, to the Europeans and to the Americans. ” Thus far, only half of America looks back.

American Clean Energy and Security Act, Boxer, China, Climate Change, Copenhagen, Democrats, economic analysis, emissions reductions, EPA, Germany, green jobs, India, Kerry, Lugar, Markey, Merkel, negotiations, Obama, Republicans, Senate, Snowe, transatlantic relations, U.S. Congress, Voinovich, washington dc, Waxman
Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

I was in Lafayette Square—the park in front of the White House—and the rain seemed to be hitting me from every angle. A couple of event organizers from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and I were setting up a stage and a sound system, preparing for the arrival of demonstrators who were marching from the Climate Action concert and rally up the road.

Although the weather had been clear and warm for most of the day’s events, the rains swept in just as the march to the White House was beginning. The CCAN folks worried that much of the crowd would disperse back to their warm, dry homes rather than join the march. But lo and behold, as the police escort arrived at Lafayette Square, followed by a big green Solar Bus, we could see an impressive mass of umbrellas following behind a banner that read: “Stop pollution and poverty – 350 now!!”

The demonstrators rolled into the park, chanting and waving rain-soaked banners. The inclement weather had clearly united them beyond their common cause: to bring public attention to the climate goal of a 350 parts-per-million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rally chants ranged from “Three, Five, O!” to “We’re here, we’re wet, it’s no sweat!” The demonstration culminated in the forming of a big “0” in front of the White House.

Across the world on October 24, demonstrators formed the numbers ”3,” “5,” and “0” in settings that included the pyramids in Egypt, the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and the face of a cliff in New York. These actions have been in the works for more than a year, coordinated by the international group 350.org and implemented by millions of local activists.

In Washington, D.C., the events of the International Day of Climate Action were spearheaded by a special partnership between CCAN and the Hip Hop Caucus. The rally banner reflected the partnership’s dynamic: “Pollution and Poverty.” Thus, the D.C. action focused especially on the linkages between climate change and environmental justice. The mission of the Hip Hop Caucus is: “to organize young people in urban communities to be active in elections, policymaking, and service projects, as a means to address and end urban poverty for future generations. Many of their rallies include performances by popular hip hop artists, bringing their messages to large, urban, and sometimes unengaged crowds.

Climate activists, too, can be disengaged in their own ways, focusing on broad global goals such as 350 ppm and forgetting that climate resiliency also means building the capacities of local communities—especially the urban poor—to adapt to changes that are already unavoidable. Michele Roberts, with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, was met with cheers when she spoke in front of the White House saying “Mr. Obama, we must remember that we have our own communities right here at home that are vulnerable to climate change.”

The Hip Hop Caucus brought a stellar lineup of D.C. musicians to the stage on Saturday. A CCAN organizer commented that it was some of the best music that has ever accompanied a climate rally in the nation’s capital. One rapper performed songs with explicitly environmental lyrics and had the crowd chanting “There’s no such thing as waste” and “reduce, reuse, recycle!”

This elaborate fusion of media and messages reminded me that getting to 350 will require a movement much more robust than one of high-level professionals working to reduce carbon emissions. It will require the engagement of all sectors of society. And for many of those sectors, especially the wealthiest, it will require a transformation of culture. The rally in D.C. showed me that we’re on our way—and that even in bad weather, we can’t be stopped.

350.org, Climate Change, climate effects, climate justice, demonstrations, environmental justice, equity, Obama, washington dc

Will the G-8 agree with the rest of the world in Copenhagen?

Are environmental groups still relevant as the world battles climate change? On the face of it, this seems a farcical question. Environmentalists have worked tirelessly to alert the public and decision-makers alike to the dangers of climate change and to advocate a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels. And on June 26, many celebrated when the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill [PDF] – the first U.S. climate legislation ever.

But as the climate debate enters a decisive phase – with negotiations in full swing to hammer out an international agreement in Copenhagen this year – there is a darker side. With few exceptions, current national goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are weak and typically push action to the distant, rather than the near, future. Although part of the environmental community has responded critically, other groups claim that more stringent climate action is simply not politically feasible – and that asking for more risks the collapse of any climate deal.

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ACES bill, negotiations, Obama