4 May 2009: Obama is very good, but not perfect

President Obama is committed to controlling climate change. He has allocated billions of dollars to renewable energy (see President Obama’s green economics) and promised to engage seriously with international negotiations. He recognises that protecting the climate cannot be left to the free market – as the Stern Report says, climate change is the greatest market failure in history. Obama is a major step forward from Bush – not hard – and despite John McCain’s good personal record on climate change (notably the McCain-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Bill), Obama-Biden was a better outcome for the climate than McCain-Palin.

However, Obama is not perfect and should not be above criticism. The US approach to biofuels needs to be radically changed and Obama must do this quickly to avoid undermining progress in other areas. In the past, his approach to biofuels has been driven more by politics – big subsidies to farmers in key electoral states – and energy security issues.

Energy security matters. The US imports over 60% of its oil. Canada is the largest supplier, followed by Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, and then Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was not solely driven by oil – Saddam Hussein was an evil, genocidal dictator – but oil was clearly an extremely significant factor. While UN sanctions were in place, countries could not import Iraqi oil. However, a number of major economies had signed post-sanctions agreements with Iraq, including Russia, China and France. Importantly, the two permanent members of the Security Council who had not were the US and the UK.

But controlling climate change matters even more. The biofuels currently produced in the US damage the climate even more than oil does. Ethanol from intensively-farmed corn, produced using coal-based electricity, is not significantly better for the climate than oil and may even be worse. And using 8% of US agricultural land for biofuels means that food has to be grown elsewhere, adding to deforestation.

Obama’s choice of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary is grounds for optimism that his administration will address this issue – perhaps in their second hundred days. Chu is very strong on climate issues. He is opposed to any expansion of unabated coal and also critical of biofuels based on corn starch. He is a proponent of ‘second-generation biofuels’, based on other feedstocks such as municipal and farm waste or non-food crops like switchgrass. These second generation biofuels will be much better for the climate and should be supported. However, they are not yet available, so need technological R&D, industrial support and public subsidy. The Obama administration has allocated money for R&D into second generation biofuels, but much more money to subsidies for first generation ones.

Even when second generation biofuels become available, using land to grow non-food crops will always mean that food needs to be grown elsewhere. Therefore, biofuels should not be used for surface transport, which should run on electricity. They should be used for essential aviation.

Sadly, support for corn-based biofuels has not been Obama’s only climate mistake in the search for an end to imported oil. When he was an Illinois Senator, he also backed Bush’s coal-to-liquid fuel programme, which benefits coal miners in the south of that state. Driving cars on coal is catastrophic for the climate, as can be seen from the situation in South Africa (see South Africa and climate change).

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