The process of climate change is complex and involves a vast array of contributors. But slowing climate change largely relies on one thing, cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and cutting carbon dioxide emissions heavily relies on reducing the use of coal. For all of the president's intricate proposals during his speech on the topic of climate change today at Georgetown University, nothing is as important as his plan to reduce America's use of coal.
It's important to consider the president's proposals within an economic context. As Senior Administration Officials™ noted during a call on the topic last night, the president made a pledge to reduce carbon (dioxide) emissions in 2009 that the United States has made great progress in achieving. This is largely due to three things out of Obama's control, however: the slow economy, a drop in electricity demand (in part due to the slow economy), and the increased use of natural gas for electricity production. Electricity production comes down to money, after all; if you figured out a way to generate gigawatts of power by leveraging the power of bare skin, America would be a nudist camp before sunset. We don't love coal, we love that coal is cheap and is, by now, well-integrated into our power infrastructure.
Obama's push to reduce coal use has two parts.
Decrease domestic coal use by limiting carbon emissions at power plants. Again: This is the most important part of Obama's speech, bar none. If he dropped everything else in his plan, this idea would still warrant a significant amount of attention, both here and abroad.
That said, what Obama is announcing today is not an immediate limit to how much carbon pollution coal-burning power plants can emit. During his State of the Union address, the president told Congress that if it didn't act to curb carbon emissions, he would do so. Which in a way was like a kid loudly announcing that he had decided to do his chores. You see, Obama is legally mandated to act on curbing carbon emissions, following a court's determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has been expected to develop a new limit on emissions for years, but, so far, only a proposal to limit emissions from new coal plants had been proposed. A lawsuit hoping to force the agency to act was postponed last week once it became apparent that Obama planned to finally tackle the real problem: existing plants.
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What Obama is announcing today is a timeline for setting that standard. Specifically, he is asking the EPA to work with states and stakeholders for a proposal by next June and a final rule by June of 2015. (He also hopes that the rule for new plants will finally be finished by this September.) Meaning that, if everything goes right, we could have an as-yet-unspecified reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning plants in only two more years.
This is good. It is also terribly belated. When Barack Obama took office, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at about 387 parts-per-million — the highest they'd ever been. Since, the trend has only increased; we've recently passed 400 parts-per-million. While America's carbon dioxide emissions have fallen since then (thanks to the factors named above), we are still produce more carbon dioxide per person than almost any country. By 2015, it will be hard no to lament the six years during which Obama was empowered to act unilaterally but didn't.
Assuming that the new rule goes into effect in 2015. Energy companies and businesses will almost certainly challenge any rule. And the court ruling that give the EPA the power to act is itself being challenged, which could throw a major wrench into the effort.
Decrease international coal use. That 400 parts-per-million figure, of course, includes the entire world's carbon emissions, something over which the president has limited control. This has long been a hobbyhorse of opponents of action on climate change: Why should we act when China, the world's largest carbon emitter, isn't?
To that end, the president plans to do what he can. Included in his proposal today will be an emphasis on brokering international initiatives meant to reduce carbon emissions from countries like China and India. During the president's first term, the United States was not exactly a decision-maker during international climate negotiations. At the very least, this gives activists something to point to during any future efforts.
Perhaps more interesting is the president's announcement that the United States will no longer provide international aid that to be used to build new coal facilities. An increasing percentage of American coal production ends up being shipped overseas for use in the countries named above to be burned for electricity. Putting a stake in the ground that the United States will not encourage new coal plant development is important (an estimate last year indicated that 1,200 new coal plants are already in the works internationally), but it will almost certainly anger coal producers.
Everything else. The president's speech includes a number of other elements, details of which can be read below. He continues his focus on investment in renewable energy, both here and internationally, improving fuel economy standards (already one of his big environmental wins), and — very importantly — an increased emphasis on energy efficiency. Wasted or unnecessary energy use is a massive contributor to our electricity production. The president's plan also includes elements meant to ensure the United States is prepared for climate change — better infrastructure investment decisions and working with states and municipalities to better prepare for climate change.
One thing the president won't address today is the Keystone XL pipeline, a focal point for environmental action. During yesterday's call with those Senior Administration Officials™, one Official pointed out that the pipeline is in the middle of a lengthy process. That's mostly a cop-out, if not an entirely inaccurate one. It is expected that there will be Keystone activists protesting at today's speech, but, as BuzzFeed quoted one organizer, "more to congratulate the president on doing what’s right, but reminding him there’s still work to do."
It is clear that the realities of the changing climate are a strong impetus for Obama's action. Hurricane Sandy, most notably, demonstrates the need for those infrastructure improvements. But the enormous cost of last year's drought and the unprecedented heat wave demonstrate the broad need for action. As our National Journal colleagues note, one top advisor to the president said last week that Obama sees addressing climate change as "a legacy issue." It is, and will be. By mid-2015, as Obama starts wrapping up his tenure, we'll have a better sense if the president's eventual focus on cutting coal use provides the legacy he is hoping for.