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Obama Pens Article in Science on Clean Energy, Climate Policy

In a Policy Forum article published in the journal Science, President Barack Obama says that the national policy trend toward a clean-energy economy is “irreversible” and that the trend will continue due to “the mounting economic and scientific evidence” of its value. The article points to the scientific case for actions on climate change, energy efficiency and emissions—the latest in a series of publications on different policy topics Obama has penned in academic journals, including the Harvard Law Review and the New England Journal of Medicine.

“The United States is showing that GHG [greenhouse gas] mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation,” Obama writes in Science just days before President-Elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20. “Evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1 percent to 5 percent of global GDP each year by 2100.”

The article goes on to cover many of the environmental policies that Trump has said he may axe when he takes office, including the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition,” Obama writes. “This does not mean the next administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my administration’s. There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve—efficiently and economically—the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement.”

Obama also discusses the struggles of the coal industry, offering that because the cost of new electricity generation using natural gas is projected to remain low relative to coal, “it is unlikely that utilities will change course and choose to build coal-fired power plants, which would be more expensive than natural gas plants, regardless of any near-term changes in federal policy.”

While it will take some time to evaluate which of Trump’s statements about environmental policy actually provide guiding points for how he will govern, The Hill takes a look at what Trump has promised to date on environment and how much might actually be accomplished on day one. At a press conference Wednesday, Trump said he planned to make a decision on his nominee for the Supreme Court within two weeks of taking office—a decision that would have implications for environmental policy.

Trump Transition: Tillerson Confirmation Hearing

The Senate confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick to lead the Department of State began early on Wednesday with conversation and questions about Russian relations. Nominated for the most senior U.S. diplomat position, one responsible for enacting the U.S. government’s foreign policy, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson told senators that relations with Russia could be improved under his leadership despite concerns over his ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

“We’re not likely to ever be friends,” Tillerson said, noting that the United States and Russia do not hold the same values. “With Russia, engagement is necessary in order to define what that relationship going to be. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.”

On the topic of climate change, Tillerson expressed that the “risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” But he added, “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” and precisely what actions nations should take “seems to be the largest area of debate existing in the public discourse.”

Tillerson said he viewed the issue primarily as an engineering problem and that Trump has “invited my views on climate change. “He knows I am on the public record with my views. I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him and policies around how the United States should carry it out in these areas.”

What else was discussed? Tillerson clarified, and appeared to reconfirm, his support for a carbon tax, and made comments about the importance of maintaining a seat at the table on how to address climate change with international treaties.

EIA: United States Could Become Energy Exporter

The United States has not been a net exporter of energy since 1953, but it could regain that status by 2026. That’s the finding of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2017, which makes energy market projections through 2050 for scenarios with a high oil price, high and low oil and gas resource and technology, and high and low economic growth as well as for a scenario in which the Clean Power Plan is not implemented. In most of those projections, natural gas production increases.

“Natural gas production, we think, is actually going to go up quite a bit, with relatively low and stable prices, so that’s going to support higher levels of domestic consumption, especially in the electric power and industrial sectors, where we think there will be quite a bit of natural gas use,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski.

He noted that technology advances are helping reduce the cost for both fossil fuel production and renewables.

“EIA’s projections show how advances in technology are driving oil and natural gas production, renewables penetration, and demand-side efficiencies and reshaping the energy future,” he said.

Across the scenarios in the report, projections for energy consumption are more consistent than those for production, whose growth is dependent on technology, resource, and market conditions. The EIA finds that although zero-carbon renewables are expected to grow faster than any other energy source over the next three decades, their increase is not likely to significantly help the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement (subscription). Instead, energy-related carbon emissions will nearly flatline, falling from an annual rate of 1.4 percent between 2005 and 2016 to 0.2 percent between 2016 and 2040. That’s because carbon reductions from electricity plants’ switch from coal to natural gas and renewables will be offset by emissions from a growing chemical industry.

The fate of the Clean Power Plan will affect energy-related carbon emissions, according to the report (subscription), though not as much as greater use of renewables and natural gas. If the plan is rescinded or overturned, annual emissions would slightly increase to 5.4 billion metric tons through 2040. If the plan is implemented, those emissions would drop to 5 billion metric tons. The scenario without the Clean Power Plan has the highest greenhouse gas emissions, but such a scenario does not include a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, which the Clean Air Act currently appears to require. However, other avenues under the Clean Air Act may be used to pursue greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

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