Energy and Climate Change - a message from America
By Dr. Derek Taylor, Former Energy Advisor to the European Commission
Most of you will know that US Administration this week (2 August) released a video with President Obama announcing “the biggest, most important step” that the US has ever taken to combat climate change. Many of you will have seen excerpts from the video and some may have watched it all. If you have not yet, I strongly suggest you do as, in 2 minutes 26 seconds, it contains what the large majority of people will ever need to know about climate change and why we need to take immediate steps to combat it (https://www.whitehouse.gov/climate-change ).
The following day, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) submitted a “Final Rule” setting out the “Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired electric generating units. This is the proposed legislation that will bring about Mr Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP).
In brief, the EPA will establish carbon dioxide emission performance rates for the fossil-fuelled units which will lead to state-specific CO2 goals and “emission standards or other measures” to implement these performance rates (http://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/).
It may sound reasonably simple – but the fact that the rule itself covers over 1500 pages of text suggests that it may be rather more difficult in its implementation! Far more accessible documents are the “overview” (http://www.epa.gov/airquality/cpp/fs-cpp-overview.pdf) and the “Clean Power Plan by numbers” (http://www.epa.gov/airquality/cpp/fs-cpp-by-the-numbers.pdf). These reveal that when the CPP is fully in place in 2030, carbon pollution from the power sector will be 32 percent below 2005 levels – a decrease in emissions of 870 million tons. Mandatory reductions will begin in 2022, which should give the US energy sector sufficient time to make investment in new or improved technology. Each state must submit their individual plans by September 2016 and these could include an emission trading scheme (hopefully more effective than the present EU one!)
This Clean Power Plan will be a boost to the renewable energies sector – the video very obviously incorporates views of wind turbines and solar panels – and for the nuclear industry. However, it will not be the death knell for the fossil fuel sector. Two-thirds of the US's electricity is produced from fossil fuels. As a result, these fuels cannot be phased out quickly. These fuels still provide the lowest cost electricity – and the USA will not give them up at the risk of losing their competitive edge. But what it should mean is that technologies will need to be deployed that can reduce the emissions from such plants, the foremost of which would likely be carbon capture and storage (CCS). We could expect to see North America develop CCS even faster in the future, unfortunately leaving Europe in its wake!
Of course, the US has rather more room for improvement in its emissions than most other countries in the World. As President Obama says, the USA is only second behind china in its total CO2 emissions. However, what he doesn’t say is that, according to the World Bank, per capita emissions in the USA are around two and a half times higher than those in China (and significantly higher than twice those of the average European). Reducing these emissions will still not be an easy task and lurking in the background is the spectre of a Republican Administration reversing whatever President Obama is able to achieve on combating Climate Change during his remaining time in the Oval Office.
But at a time when all roads lead to Paris and COP21 later this year, this new message from America should – and must – be warmly welcomed by all those concerned about the future of our planet and, above all, acted on now.
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