US presidential hopeful Obama pledges 80 percent emission cut by 2050, and slams nuclear fuel storage and reprocessing

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"I’ve put forward very substantial proposals to get 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gasses by 2050," Obama said.

Obama’s videotaped remarks came Thursday – a day before the debate that was still at that time uncertain to take place as McCain did not commit until the 11th hour to participate – at a meeting hosted on the issues of the presidential race by the Clinton Global Initiative in Harlem. (Obama’s remarks can be viewed here by scrolling forward in the video cast to 01.33.00 on the time marker.)

Obama’s declaration mark the first time in this hard fought campaign that any candidate has set out an emissions cut time-table that even approaches initiatives under pursuit in Europe – and the Democratic candidate promised that the United States, under his presidency, would join global emissions reduction and climate change efforts that have been totally ignored by the presidency of George Bush.

Bellona representatives, who were present for the meeting Clinton Initiative meeting in New York were astonished by Obama’s announcement. Indeed, discussions of combating climate change have been entirely absent from presidential races until this year – even when it was apparent that the issue was already a key flashpoint of political activity and international treaties in countries beyond the borders of the United States – the single largest contributor to global greenhouse gasses.

“This is totally fantastic,” said Bellona President Frederic Hauge of Obama’s promise to cut emissions by 80 percent in an interview in New York. “This is exactly what they need to be cut to.”

During the Thursday meeting, McCain also promised emissions cuts to 60 percent below 1990 levels, and said his presidency would also strive for more contact with the outside world on climate change issues.

Obama also opposes nuclear build that McCain supports

Yet, while McCain in Friday’s televised debate said that American energy independence must be ensured by nuclear power – and promised to bring about the much hailed nuclear build being promised by the current administration – he was steadfastly opposed by Obama, who said that spent nuclear fuel storage and reprocessing were far too dangerous for the environment.

Abandoning the Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Nevada has been a cornerstone of Obama’s candidacy, and he said Friday night that no nuclear build would be pursued until safe storage options were available. McCain has supported the completion of Yucca Mountain on every one of his campaign stops except Nevada, where, in tune with local opinion, he unleashed invective on the site.

Obama in the debate instead favoured government and private sector spurred initiatives to bring alternative energy onto the US power grid.

Obama campaign says Washington must ‘wipe smoke from its eyes’

A spokeswoman for David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s chief campaign adviser, told Bellona Web that, “The deep cuts proposed by Mr. Obama, and the fact that they are in line with European proposals is nothing new inside the campaign,” she said.

“But it has long been an article of our faith that emission cuts and technologies to make that possible will be a centre-piece of an Obama presidency – it’s time for the Washington to literally wipe the smoke from its eyes and see this problem for the reality that it is – Europe is doing this and we must be in a leadership position with them,” she said. She added that one of the first issues Obama would like American industry to come to grips with is CO2 capture and storage (CCS).

“An Obama presidency would set aside $15 billion a year for the development of renewables,” the spokeswoman said. “Carbon capture and storage will also be a part of this process while, the Obama presidency works to shift US dependence on carbon producing fossil fuels to those technologies that will not leave an irreversible environmental footprint.”

Achieving emissions cuts – cap and trade

Bellona published a report called “How to Combat Global Warming” that came out in June and proposed that the world CO2 emissions can be cut by 85 percent by 2050. Now that an Obama presidency is possible, it would seem that he could do much to realise Bellona’s proposals.  

McCain’s proposed 60 percent cuts in CO2 emissions would, like Obama’s proposal, rely on modest initial cuts at home, and then a full bore increase in cutbacks over the next 40 years to below 1990 levels, CBS news quoted him as saying in Miami.

Both candidates propose to reach their stated goals – McCain’s 60 percent and Obama’s 80 percent – through a cap and trade programme.

Under such a programme, the US government sets an annual cap, or limit, on carbon emissions and issues permits up to that limit to companies that release greenhouse gases. If a company reduces its emissions, it can sell or trade its unused permits to a company that can’t meet emission goals.

"Leadership must begin at home. That’s why I’ve proposed a cap and trade system to limit our carbon emissions and to invest in alternative sources of energy," Obama said in a May campaign swing through Miami.

Across the country, on a whistle stop tour of California, McCain agreed, saying he had laid out his own cap and trade system: "I have proposed a new system of cap-and-trade that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy."

McCain’s emissions permits for free – Obama’s sold to develop renewables

But the similarities between the candidates end there. McCain would give companies most of the emissions permits for free based on their previous emission levels. Then if they cut back, they can make money selling unused permits.

"In all its power, the profit motive will suddenly begin to shift and point the other way toward cleaner fuels, wiser ways, and a healthier planet," said McCain in a Portland campaign stop, CBS news reported.  

Obama, however, would sell all emission permits at auction, so companies would have to pay for every ton of carbon they release. Money raised would be used to develop renewable energy and to subsidize consumers’ energy bills.

UN demands a 50 to 80 percent cut

Obama’s emissions cut plan is aiming for the higher end of what the United Nations Panel on Climate Change (UNPCC’s) has said is necessary.

The UNPCC –which, with Al Gore, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – has said that emissions of climate gasses must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent by 2050. Last year, the European Union (EU) unilaterally undertook to cut its CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020, while at the same time shifting 20 percent of the EU’s energy use on to renewable sources.

“This is a challenge to an oil nation such as Norway,” said Hauge.

Next year, a new conclusive climate agreement will be negotiated in Copenhagen. According to the plan for the further UN negotiations, all industrial countries will take upon themselves measurable reductions in climate gas emissions, but no concrete levels have yet been set.

(Anne Karin Saether and Tone Foss Aspevoll contributed to this report.)