Obama, Coal, and Perspective

Posted on by Mark Nykanen

So we heard from the White House this week about the President’s plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the country’s coal and gas-fired power plants. From the outset here, let’s accept that this is a step in the right direction, but let’s also recognize it for what it is: a baby step.

The 30 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from those principally coal-fired plants that has been heralded by the White House and news reports sounds impressive. So does the President’s pledge to reduce the nation’s overall carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels. But U.S. CO2 levels have been been dropping since ’05, so when you cut from a historically high year, you get a bigger number–30 percent. Cut from a much more recent year, say 2012, and that number shrinks to a 15 percent cut–or a 1 percent reduction in global emissions.

One percent from the nation with the highest per capita output of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s easy to forget our unrivaled consumption when we’re constantly reminded that China is now the leading polluter–but with a population more than triple that of the United States. A key reason for the reduction in carbon emissions in the U.S., besides the Great Recession, which cut production, driving, and other means of pumping out carbon, was the significant increase in the use of “cleaner” natural gas, with its smaller carbon imprint. I put “cleaner” in quotes because recent studies suggest that the fracking boom has resulted in significant methane emissions, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So don’t be surprised to learn that the real impact of natural gas on the environment is far more daunting than we’ve been told. And, yes, renewables such as wind and solar are growing–and quickly–but let’s put that into perspective as well: Solar provides .11 percent of the country’s power, wind just 3.46 percent. Got a loooong way to go.

So will the U.S. move prompt other countries to step forward and make major cuts? I doubt that because the cuts announced by the White House aren’t major; a 1 percent cut by the world’s biggest consuming nation is unlikely to impress most of the world, where we’re seeing carbon emissions rising quickly.

There’s reason to take heart in the President’s actions. They are a step in the right direction. But, as noted, a baby step. Here’s a link to Vox,which has a fine, easy to read report that goes into much greater depth: http://www.vox.com/cards/obama-climate-plan/what-is-obamas-plan-to-tackle-global-warming

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