Obama's climate change laws are a very small step in the right direction

Obama’s policy is one designed to deal with domestic politics
  • @doug_parr

Today, President Obama announced new rules on emissions of CO2 from American power stations. So, how far has he gone? Your reaction might depend on whether you’re a scientist, a progressive politician or a diplomat. The new proposals are undoubtedly an inadequate response in purely scientific terms, as measured against the latest projections of warming from the United Nations’ expert panel. But Obama’s initiative is an important moment in the US political process, which until now has seemed incapable of making even the mildest public policy response to the warnings of its own experts. And these new CO2 rules might just give the moribund global climate talks the momentum they need as we approach next year’s big summit in Paris.

Obama’s policy is one designed to deal with domestic politics. Climate change action has been one of the victims of longstanding political polarisation, which, let’s not forget, nearly bankrupted the public sector only a few months ago. So tough action on climate change whilst Republicans remain in a state of denial, has been painfully slow. Instead, a series of climate-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the Californian drought and mid-West heatwaves, combined with climate activism on issues like the pipeline pumping filthy fuel from the tar-sands, has meant a much greater mandate for the US President to act personally on greenhouse gas emissions.

His plan should be implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency. Details remain to be clarified but each of the 50 States will have the freedom to choose how they deliver emissions cuts. They can do it through energy efficiency, using cleaner plants or building more clean energy generation capacity.

What will this mean for international politics? The next big chance for an international climate agreement will be at the end of 2015 in Paris. A deal will depend on what China and the USA come to the table with, and there is some cause for optimism. The Chinese Government can longer ignore the appalling air pollution and health consequences of its dependence on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.  Having both the world’s biggest emitters coming to Paris with tangible action plans means it becomes more likely other nations will move. Leaders in Europe – where political will has subsided recently – know that new clean technology looking for vibrant markets and a supportive political environment will happily look outside the continent. Compare: Obama, in a challenging political context, says he doesn’t have time to meet with the Flat Earth Society. Cameron, with overwhelmingly public support for clean energy, appoints climate change sceptics to top jobs in cabinet.

Preventing dangerous climate change – a rise of two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures - requires developed countries like the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 80% by 2050. This proposal only cuts emissions from one sector – electricity generation – by 30% by 2030. And because of some sleight of hand on what the baseline years for measurement are, the actual emissions reductions will be less then the headline figure suggests. Probably around 4% by the end of the decade – nothing like what is required. These small steps are certainly cost-effective: the EPA rule is set to cost $5.5 billion in 2020, but this should generate $32-54 billion in climate & health-related benefits. So there is no question these standards could have been much stricter.

But coming from Washington DC, long the mothership of climate denial, they are movement, so nonetheless very welcome.

Dr Douglas Parr is chief scientist and policy director, at Greenpeace UK