January 30, 2013 — On the heels of President Obama’s second inauguration, environmentalists around the country were elated that he spoke often—and eloquently—of climate change in his public address. I know I was thrilled.
However, many prominent environmental activists are also quick to cite the “failures” of Obama’s first term, including, in their estimation, the collapse of the 2009 cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Senate and the ongoing review (instead of cancellation) of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Critics have been loud and unrelenting, questioning Obama’s leadership on climate change and repeatedly saying that he did nothing to address the issue so far.
I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I think these criticisms are largely unwarranted and miss the many important things accomplished in Obama’s first term.
First, let’s take a deeper look at Obama’s supposed failures.
The collapse of the 2009 cap-and-trade bill had more to do with the dramatic rightward shift of the Republican Party—away from its earlier centrist position on climate change—than with Obama’s lack of effort to push it through. In today’s hyper-politicized Senate, where any bill requires a 60-vote majority, it is nearly impossible to pass any meaningful piece of legislation, let alone one so important. How can we expect to legislate a massive change in our energy and economic policy under such circumstances? The truth is, a cap-and-trade bill, or anything like it, is simply dead on arrival in the U.S. Congress. It was true in 2009, and it’s even more true now with Republicans controlling the House. Short of major changes in our political system, this is a non-starter. And Obama knows that.
At best, [the Keystone XL pipeline] is a bit of a sideshow. At worst, it’s a distraction from the bigger issues that contribute to climate change.
While it has attracted a great deal of attention, the intense focus of environmental activists on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline as one of the top climate change issues seems somewhat misguided. The pipeline itself, if ever built, would provide only a miniscule percentage of the country’s petroleum, and likely only displace other oil sources, not suddenly make Americans want to consume more oil. Furthermore, the Canadian tar sands oil, while certainly “dirtier” to extract than traditional oil sources, releases roughly 15 percent more CO2 per barrel than conventional oil. (This includes the full life cycle, or “well to wheels,” emissions of CO2, including those released to extract, transport and combust the fuel.) While this is certainly not helpful, it’s odd to get overly worked up over it, especially when existing liquid fuels (e.g., kerosene, different grades of gasoline, ethanol, diesel) may have similar emissions differences. I’m not a fan of the pipeline and would rather it wasn’t built, but it’s hardly the top priority for addressing climate change that many have claimed. At best, it’s a bit of a sideshow. At worst, it’s a distraction from the bigger issues that contribute to climate change.
Next, let’s look at Obama’s real record on climate change.
It turns out that the United States has seen significant reductions in CO2 emissions since Obama was elected. Yep, the U.S. is decreasing emissions.
U.S. CO2 emissions peaked in 2007 and have declined an estimated 12 to 13 percent (final numbers for 2012 are still pending) since then. In fact, along with Brazil, which is seeing dramatic reductions in deforestation rates, the U.S. is leading the world in reducing emissions.
This dramatic turn around in U.S. CO2 emissions was due to several factors.
First, we have seen a major shift away from coal to natural gas, which dramatically cuts CO2 emissions (natural gas releases half the CO2 of coal to generate the same amount of electricity) and other air pollution. However, much of this natural gas has recently been developed by hydraulic fracking, which can have enormous impacts on water quality (if done poorly) and may inadvertently leak methane (another powerful greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. The current natural gas boom is a mixed environmental bag, and major improvements in regulation and technology are needed to fulfill the promise of the natural gas transition.
New CAFE standards pushed by the Obama administration will increase the combined fuel efficiency of cars and light duty trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This is a big deal.
Second, we have seen continued pressure, more veiled than overt, on the coal industry by the EPA as the agency weighs whether to use its legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. This pressure, combined with the boom in cheap natural gas, has dealt a one-two punch to the coal industry, significantly lowering our CO2 emissions.
Furthermore, we have seen dramatic improvements in energy efficiency in the last few years. One of the most important is the sudden surge in vehicle efficiency; new CAFE standards pushed by the Obama administration will increase the combined fuel efficiency of cars and light duty trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This is a big deal. CAFE standards for cars were stuck at a mere 27.5 mpg from 1985 to 2010.
The administration has also taken a leadership role in renewable energy research and development, dramatically accelerating efforts to produce advanced biofuels, solar energy and wind power. For example, the Department of Energy has launched several new, highly ambitious “race to the Moon” R&D programs through its ARPA-E initiative, which is modeled after the highly successful DARPA program in the Pentagon, as well as massively increased funding for renewable energy research across the nation. Moreover, the deployment of renewable energy sources has increased steadily in the past five years, up from 8.5 percent of the U.S. energy sector in 2007 to over 13 percent in 2011 (data for 2012 is not yet available).
Obviously the downturn in the American economy had a role in lowering emissions. However, the U.S. economy has grown beyond where it was in 2007, and emissions are still substantially lower. We have seen a period of economic disruption, followed by reorganization, economic growth and a net increase in efficiency. The trick now, as the economy stabilizes, is to hold on to those gains and make sure our emissions continue to decline as the economy grows further.
While it is hard to give the Obama administration credit for all of these factors, it was instrumental in several of them, especially the quantum jump in CAFE standards, the development and deployment of more renewables and the ongoing pressure on coal plants by the EPA. Those actions alone did more to reduce emissions than the symbolic victories of passing a watered-down cap-and-trade bill or shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline would have. In this case, real results trump political symbols.
So, building on this momentum, what should Obama do in his next term?
Looking to the future, I think Obama should stick with the sense of pragmatism he’s led with so far. On the domestic agenda, he needs to act without Congress and push along several fronts. First, he should use the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and lean harder on high-emitting sources like coal. Second, he should push for federal regulations of the fracking industry to reduce water pollution and fugitive methane emissions. Third, he should continue to improve national energy efficiency standards and use government procurement policies (especially in the military) to encourage more energy efficiency and renewable energy development in the marketplace. Finally, he should continue his push for aggressive research and technology development in renewable energy.
Obama can also use his strong international influence to address greenhouse gases on the global stage. While we have much work to do at home, the atmosphere doesn’t care which country emits CO2—it’s a global problem, and emissions from India are just as important as those from Indiana. Obama can accelerate his international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially those that don’t stem from energy use. In fact, roughly half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions result from non-energy sources, including tropical deforestation, methane emissions (especially from leaky natural gas infrastructure, landfills, rice paddies and cattle), black carbon (or soot) from dirty stoves and engines, tropospheric ozone and a wide range of other gases. Some focused attention on these sources—Indonesian deforestation, for example, or leaky natural gas pipes in the former USSR—should be a top priority.
In the longer term, Obama will need to work on building a broad base of public support and on grassroots political pressure to change our political systems (especially in Congress) so that we can pass meaningful, bipartisan legislation on climate change. This is a necessary step to make lasting, and impactful, climate change policy a reality in the United States. But this is a long-term effort, one that may require years to accomplish. In the meantime, Obama needs to keep a strong tactical focus on the solutions he can achieve today. The atmosphere can’t wait.
Finally, I urge the President to stay focused on real and immediate emissions reductions, and not get distracted by his friends or foes into playing Washington games. In this case, the atmosphere, and the fate of future generations, must come before scoring political points.
Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. These views are his own, and do not reflect the view of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.