Should the new Obama Clean Power Plan boost expectations for Paris?

US President Barack Obama. (Photo: White House)
US President Barack Obama. (Photo: White House)

Publish date: August 6, 2015

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW ORLEANS – President Obama’s new rules to help slash emissions from existing US power plants has propelled Washington into an international leadership role ahead of the possibly pivotal UN COP21 climate talks in Paris this December.

But as analysts continue to page through the 1,566 pages of the Clean Power Plan, how do they stack up against what other nations are bringing to the city of lights?

As much as the Clean Power Plan laudably hopes to do in the way of slashing almost a third emissions from coal produced energy in the US, more broadly it only slices off 6 percent of US emissions overall, where experts have long said those more general emissions must plummet by 80 percent to have any global effect.

jonasmonea Mike Monea, SaskPower's president for carbon capture and storage Initiatives (left) and Jonas Helseth at the opening of the Boundary Dam CCS unit. (Photo: Nils Røkke for Bellona)

Bellona would also like to see a clear plan for using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to lower these emissions. This tech has been successfully applied at Canada’s Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, and Mississippi intends similar measures for its Kemper Project.

CCS movement there, but misdirected

Sirin Egen, a CCS adviser with Bellona, noted that Kemper, which she visited this summer, seems a one-of-a-kind project at the moment – and has less to do with climate initiatives as it does with securing bolstered fossil fuel recovery.

“There’s also something to be said about the lack of focus on the ‘S’ part of CCS,” she said. “My experience from the South was that everyone seemed extremely focused on EOR [enhanced oil recovery] and other industrial applications of CO2.”

Clean Power still heavy on emissions

Egen joined the universal praise of Obama’s Monday plan. But she said that unless the White House follows up with similar initiatives for other emissions-intensive sectors like transport, “the climate plan lacks a holistic vision for a low-carbon US.”

On the world stage, it might mean even less. As pointed out by Scientific American, U.S. CO2 emissions just from generating electricity will still add more than 1.7 billion metric tons to the atmosphere each year in 2030—more than the combined emissions of the entire economies of Germany and the U.K.

Thus, the cuts included in the plan are a first step but will not be enough to combat climate change.

So what else needs to fall into place?

Comparing the climate efforts of various nations is an apples and oranges endeavor. That’s because negotiators working on the Paris treaty are taking a “pledge and review” approach, meaning each country chooses its own targets, based on a range of factors, which are often very subjective.

A mixed bag of commitments

The Clean Power Plan is certainly something that gains the US a forceful seat at the table, but its only one part of a larger scheme to reduce all the country’s CO2 emissions to between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

By comparison to what the European Union is proposing, that looks a bit pale: The EU is shooting for a more ambitious 40 percent slash below 1990 emissions levels by 2030. Other European countries like Norway will match EU targets, and Switzerland is shooting to slash by 50 percent below 1990 levels.

Chimney CO-2 belching chimney. (Photo: Bellona) Credit: clarita, MorgueFile

Other huge players, however, are using 2005 as their baseline year, including China, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. Canada and Japan have proposed 25 to 30 percent cuts under that year.

China and Singapore have taken a different approach, saying they will reduce their carbon intensity – a term that has somewhat puzzled past UN negotiators. What that means is cutting the amount of carbon produced per unit of gross domestic product.

Other approaches, like South Korea’s and Mexico’s offer a plan to cut their emissions between 32 and 64 percent compared with what their emissions might have been in 2030 had they just kept chugging along as usual.

Then there are the big emitting, newly industrialized countries that haven’t submitted any plans at all – countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. The economic hopes of this group could lead down some smoggy paths.

US has been active prior to Clean Power

But, prior to the Clean Power Plan, the US had already built up some climate credibility when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly announced their national contributions a new global climate pact during a summit in Beijing last November.

On top of saying it would cap its emissions by 2030, China offered that 20 percent of its energy would come by then from renewable sources. It also said it would drop its carbon intensity by 60-65 percent by the 2030 deadline – making it’s terms sound less vague.

Credit: Wikipedia

The joint announcement from the world’s two biggest polluters – who together account for 45 percent of the world’s emissions – shoved the US into the lead spot in the world’s climate popularity contest, at the time nearly an impossible feat.

Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations for The Nature Conservancy told The Christian Science Monitor that the US-Chinese agreement accomplished three things.

“It put the US out there with a significant, credible target. It demonstrated that China was prepared to commit to an international target as well,” Deutz said. “And the fact that the US and China were moving together helped to unlock the negotiating space.”

Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to December’s UN climate talks in Lima sealed the deal with China, committing them to their Beijing proposal – marking China’s first ever international climate commitment.

Jonas Helseth, director of Bellona Europa, summed up the Peruvian accomplishment by saying that “US promises mean a lot” in the run up to Paris.

And perhaps that’s the most important thing the US can offer – a solid record of promises kept. Not that the Clean Power Plan is not already facing a hail storm of national challenges that could end up in the Supreme Court.

But on an international scale, the Obama Administration’s ability to pull China into actual commitments, as well as face down a controversial battle with coal at home, gives the US a Phoenix-like entré to Paris.

In the run up to the 2016 elections, Obama seems to be serving the rest of his final term as a guy who’s got nothing to lose. With Paris widely seen as the last ditch effort to keep the world below the 2 degree rise, it might prove that such an approach also has everything to gain.

As UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon’s spokesman said in a statement: “President Obama’s leadership by example is essential for bringing other key countries on board and securing a universal, durable and meaningful agreement in Paris in December.”