Foreign Policy Blogs

President Obama Decides Time is Right for Climate Change Plan

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

As immigration legislation is prodded through the U.S. Senate then likely to collect mothballs in the U.S. House of Representatives, and major Supreme Court decisions are announced, the executive branch has garnered a portion of the headlines. Ready to take on another challenge, President Obama laid out his plan to combat Climate Change – a topic largely silent during the first-term of his presidency.

President Obama said during his speech, “As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say, ‘We need to act,’ …I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

However, the legislative atmosphere being as noxious as it is in the U.S., Mr. Obama has decided to act by issuing executive orders to ensure that measures to address climate change will be taken. This process prevents garnering congressional approval, but the executive orders can be repealed by a future president, since they are not law.

Mr. Obama’s strategy is structured in three parts: 1.) reduce carbon emissions 2.) prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and 3.) lead international efforts to address climate change.

All three pillars are fraught with many challenges and complexities, but ambitious enough that proponents of climate action have praised the announcement though other proponents do not believe the actions will go far enough to attain the internationally desired outcomes.

Critics of the action have focused on the economic impact of new regulations and how that will translate to greater expenses and job loss. To counterbalance his critics, the president believes the details of his plan will foster innovation, thus leading to new jobs and put the economy on solid footing for the future.

To uphold the executive orders in court, the administration needs to craft the minute content carefully, and each word scrutinized and analyzed in order to be able to defend the lawsuits there will undoubtedly be.

Surely the most controversial matter will be the directive for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop new carbon pollution standards for existing and new power plants. Currently, power generation emits one-third of carbon nationally.

“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free,” Mr. Obama stated. “That’s not right. That’s not safe. And it needs to stop.” Coal power plants stand be most adversely affected due to the resource being the most carbon intensive of all forms of electric power production.

Coal’s U.S. market share had been receding; its annual share of electric generation declined from 49 percent in 2007 to 37 percent in 2012, according to Bloomberg. Power producers increased electric production from natural gas, which is more efficient and emits about half the emissions to tally 30 percent of the portfolio in 2012. Thus far in 2013, though, energy production from coal has increased to 40 percent and is predicted to continue to increase for the foreseeable future; natural gas has dropped to 26 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Coal’s scope in the U.S. is still massive with reserves ranking as largest in the world; the reserves tally enough to last 200 years at current production levels, according to the EIA. Senator Joe Manchi (D-WV) said President Obama had “declared a war on coal,” and industry trade associations stated the potential new rules threatened coal’s commercial sustainability and thousands of jobs.

Acknowledging the vast challenges, Mr. Obama set the goal for the plan to reign in emissions from power plants to be finalized by June 2015. The timetable could prove dubious as the directive could be held up by lawsuits.

International Leadership: Fluff or Flourish?

On the international scene, the new question is: whether this promise to lead efforts to address climate change is sincere or is to play catch-up as Mr. Obama was anticipated to breathe new life and spirit to the climate negotiations by much of the world during his first-term.

Regardless of the lack of prior leadership, real leadership is needed now for significant climate action to be agreed to by 2015 (the previously agreed upon date for global climate legislation to be crafted by). Strong direction could lead to China, India and other emerging economies coming to the table with the developed world willing to seriously negotiate. In previous U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings, there has been a divide between the developed and developing world on levels of commitments to make.

Following up on his prior international pledge, Mr. Obama recommitted the U.S. to meeting the target he set in 2009 during the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. However, despite emissions dropping last year more than 12 percent from the peak in 2007, they are now predicted to grow by 2.5 percent this year, and continue ascending through 2040, which would basically render his goals useless.

“Internationally, the White House plan contains a number of good intentions which have now to be translated into more concrete action,” said E.U. climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

Globally, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded that global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions set an all-time high in 2012, derailing the world off its path to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2020 – the globally agreed target to stay below. In fact, “The path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 and 5.3 C (6.5-9.5F),” IEA chief Maria van der Hoeven said. Following Ms. van der Hoeven’s statement, U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres emphasized that “Once again we are reminded that there is a gap between current efforts and the engagement necessary to keep the world below a 2 C temperature rise.” Can Mr. Obama follow through on his intended leadership and get parties serious to act the unsustainable trend? Time will tell.

China, which will not be confused with a leader on climate issues as it is the world’s largest emitter, has begun to take preliminary steps to challenge climate change domestically. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim stated, “There’s a new spirit in China…it is setting really, really aggressive goals on curbing climate-changing emissions.” It is easy for a skeptic to point to China’s dramatic coal consumption and dismiss minimizing carbon, but one new policy is establishing the world’s largest national carbon market in Shenzhen, which can be a foundation for sustained change. The new market, consisting of 635 companies responsible for 38 percent of the city’s carbon pollution, began trading emission allowances. The program is scheduled to be expanded to six other areas by next year and then to all of China before 2020.

Furthermore, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has proposed setting absolute caps on greenhouse emissions as early as 2016. Approval is necessary from the Chinese Cabinet to go into law. This would be a dramatic action and could provide a potential framework for other countries to model, especially if the economic powerhouse can implement it. As of today, China has pledged to cut its emissions intensity – the amount of carbon it emits per economic unit – by up to 45 percent by 2020.

Dr. Kim concluded, “right now, they’re more serious than any country I know” in terms of acting on climate change.

India, the world’s third largest emitter, has been very non-committal whiling negotiating at UNFCCC meetings. The nation does not want to impede its rapid economic growth by altering its energy landscape. Perhaps Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to India June 23-25 was a precursor of President Obama’s third pillar of international leadership. The secretary conveyed the message that without fully engaging to combat climate change, there could be shortages of food and water, more excessive heat waves, intense flooding, and droughts: all of which could stymy the nation’s essential growth, poverty alleviation, and development. Importantly to remember, the worst effects would be borne by those least able to adapt to them.

Mr. Kerry ended his visit stating, “I am convinced that we can move toward a global agreement that puts us on track to avert the most dangerous climate change, that is sensitive to and respectful of the diversity of national circumstances and capabilities, and that is fair, pragmatic and can actually evolve with changing circumstances.”

Ulterior motive or good faith?

A good question is why did President Obama unveil his climate aspirations now? Did it have anything to do with his trip to Africa, where climate action is seen as essential by most governments, so he can tout a new agenda and hide the fact he has not been as engaged with the continent as its citizens hoped 4 years ago? Or was it that now is the time to “payback” his loyal supporters that helped him win a second-term as president? Or is it simply his desire to act and June 25 was the best day logistically to make the announcement and get to work on implementing this plan?

One can be very cynical, but regardless of the thought process, climate change is on the policy table in the U.S.



Joe Gurowsky

Joe Gurowsky focuses on energy, environment, geopolitics, trade, international development and climate related issues. Recently, he worked in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania regarding different energy related programs . Joe has also traveled to Costa Rica, Ghana, the UAE, Germany and Alberta, Canada for aspects of energy and environmental policy.