Weekend Wonk: Climate and the Way Forward
November 19, 2016
“What I’ve been saying. Neither physics nor economics were repealed 10 days ago.” –
Admiral David Titley
Even though President Obama’s historic Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court and appears doomed in the Trump Administration, the electric sector is getting so green so fast that it has already met the plan’s 2024 goal for slashing carbon emissions and its 2030 target for reducing coal use, new data show.
The primary cause of the sharp decline in power-plant emissions is clear: Utilities are rapidly abandoning coal for cleaner-burning natural gas and zero-emission renewables. It’s also clear that this shift, driven by rising prices for coal and falling prices for climate-friendlier alternatives, is happening independently of Obama’s controversial climate rules, which were only finalized in August 2015 and then suspended by the Court six months later. Even if President-Elect Trump fulfills his pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, the U.S. is on track to fulfill its pledges under that deal, a glimmer of good news for environmentalists mourning his election.
What is not clear is whether Trump, who has vowed to undo the Clean Power Plan and end Obama’s “war on coal,” can reverse the decline of coal or even slow it down. Trump has called global warming a made-in-China hoax, and the energy section of his transition website reads like an ode to fossil fuels. But since his election, Trump and other pro-coal Republicans, including Senate Majority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have tried to lower expectations of a coal-country renaissance, acknowledging that coal’s problems extend beyond Obama’s EPA.
Those problems have gotten even more severe this year. An analysis of government energy data provided to POLITICO by the Sierra Club, which has led a national Beyond Coal campaign to try to kill the industry, shows that U.S. power plants are on track to emit 1.76 billion metric tons of carbon this year, a 27 percent reduction from 2005. That’s already below the Clean Power Plan’s interim goal for 2024, and most of the way to the 32 percent reduction the plan envisions for 2030. If you subtract emissions from the 71 operating coal plants that already have announced retirement dates, the electric sector has just about met the plan’s final emissions goals 15 years early, even though the plan does not now have and may never have any legal teeth to compel compliance.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has dramatically scaled back its outlook for coal demand growth over the next 25 years, Carbon Brief analysis shows.
The 2016 World Energy Outlook sees global coal demand rise by 214 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) by 2040, less than half the 485Mtoe increase it expected last year. The IEA is also now persuaded that Chinese coal demand peaked in 2013.
Important point above – the IEA typically lowballs renewable energy, and overestimates fossil fuel projections over time. So interesting that, even given that tendency, they say Chinese coal has peaked.
American Wind Energy Association:
We often talk about how wind energy is a drought-proof cash crop for farmers and ranchers, providing steady income they can count on when the rains don’t fall or the fields don’t produce as expected. And that income is sizeable– landowners were paid $222 million in lease payments in 2015 alone. That’s why some observers are calling wind power “the new corn.”
But what does this mean for their day-to-day operations?
Dr. Sarah Mills of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy recently took a deeper look at this question in a paper entitled, “Farming the wind: The impacts of wind energy on farming.”
She sent a survey to 14 farmland townships throughout Michigan, and received responses from over 1,200 landowners. Here are a few key findings:
- Farmers with turbines on their land have invested twice as much in their operations over the last five years as those without them.
- Turbine-hosting farmers have purchased more farmland in the last five years than non-hosts.
- Farmers with turbines are more likely to believe their property will be farmed in the future, and they’re more likely to have a succession plan in place for when they retire.
- 92 percent of respondents think wind turbines provide income for landowners.
- 84 percent think wind farms create jobs.
- 55 percent think wind farms help preserve rural land.
Crucially, Mills also found that landowners with wind turbines spent significantly more improving their homes and farms.
Climate has been central to Barack Obama’s presidency. And while questions about how Trump could unravel his executive actions on climate has been dominating the headlines, Obama’s made it clear he intends to take the long view. And he plans to finish the job in a sprint. “[We will] make sure we finish what we started, that we don’t let up in these last couple months because my goal is that, on January 21st, America is in the strongest position possible,” he said earlier this week, in his first news conference since the election.
That means Obama and his team have just two months to lock down the climate gains they’ve made in the past two terms and devise new projects for Trump’s administration to unravel. But so far he and U.S. diplomats have spent their public-facing time trying to assuage liberal fears that “all the work we did suddenly gets stripped away,” while quietly — and to all appearances rather hopelessly — courting Trump, even as advisors study legal options behind the scenes.
When addressing Democrats, the administration talks tough. “We got more done than any administration in the last who-knows-how-many decades; if they roll back 15 or 20 percent of that, we’re still 80 percent ahead,” Obama told Democratic National Committee stakeholders on a Monday call. “And that’s not going to be as easy as I think some people feel.” Yet Obama’s staff has offered few specifics about what they can do. In a time of transition, that may be the prudent decision, but it’s also because when it comes to Paris and the Clean Power Plan, the answer is “not much.”
John Sterman, a professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written that, with Trump in the White House and a Republican Congress, “there is little hope that the Clean Power Plan will survive in the Supreme Court or for federal action to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris accord.”
As a result, the U.S. has turned to persuasion, emphasizing anything construable as Trump-friendly, like the falling price of wind and solar — and how good it’s all been for the U.S. economy. “What we’ve been able to show over the last five, six, eight years is that it’s possible to grow the economy really fast and possible to bring down carbon emissions as well,” Obamasaid. “It’s not just a bunch of rules that we’ve set up.”