7 December 2009: Copenhagen + Obama = progress?

The Copenhagen Climate Summit starts today. Prospects are looking better than they were a few weeks ago and the fact that President Obama has decided to attend the final negotiating session, rather than just for a token visit at the start, is excellent. This is his first real chance to show that, as well as being a very good speaker and writer, he is also a good negotiator. The US Ambassador to London, Louis Susman, has said that Obama decided to attend because he sees controlling climate change as a moral issue. This is absolutely right – millions of the world’s poorest people are already suffering the consequences of changes.  It is also good politics. The most powerful movements in history – anti-slavery, women’s rights and civil rights – have all been based on a clear moral principle.

However, in this case, morality must be mixed with money. The single most important thing that must be agreed at Copenhagen is to provide substantial extra money to protect forests. The governments of the countries that have the forests, such as Brazil, say that they are willing to leave them standing, but only if developed countries, which have grown rich partly by cutting down their own forests and partly by using dirty fossil fuels, give them money to compensate. Of course, the US President cannot himself provide substantial extra money – that is a matter for Congress. Last week, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, John Kerry, introduced a Bill that would provide international aid for forest preservation and money to help deploy low-carbon energy technologies in developing nations. It would also increase aid to help countries with adaptation – dealing with the now-unavoidable impact of climate change. This Bill may have a better chance of getting through Congress than does the cap-and-trade Bill, as it will not face the same intensive opposition from the coal industry. In addition, Kerry’s Bill clearly has a better chance of success than would any Copenhagen Protocol setting targets and limits for total US greenhouse emissions, which would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

As well as providing money for developing countries, the US must speed up its own low-carbon transition and, on this, Obama can take heart from the plans of his birthplace, Hawaii. This is sixth in the table of states getting electricity from renewables other than large hydro (though it gets only 5.34% – a sign of how poorly all states are doing; see State of the States 2008: Renewable Energy Development and the Role of Policy published by the US Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Laboratory; see also Policy and performance of the States in the USA). Imported oil accounts for three-quarters of Hawaii’s electricity. Different islands are harnessing different renewable sources – waves in Maui, wind in Linai and solar in Oahu. Republican Governor, Linda Lingle, has agreed an ambitious target to get 40% of electricity from renewables by 2030. And last week, her government and the Hawaiian Electric Company agreed a plan to build an alternative transportation system based on electric vehicles. This aims to have broad commercial sales of electric vehicles in 2012. Central to the plan is the notion of swappable batteries – people drive into a service station and someone takes the empty battery out and puts a fully-charged one in. This would overcome the problem that electric vehicles do not have enough range for long journeys. Hawaii has about 1.2 million vehicles and about 10% of them are replaced each year. It also has enormous renewables potential. The Hawaii approach is based as much on energy security and its vulnerability to oil price hikes as it is on climate change. It is a good example that reducing emissions can be done in ways that help, not harm, economies, and also that some Republican politicians can be part of the solution.

The Obama Administration announced last week a grant of $350 million for Summit Power’s Texas Clean Energy project, a 400Mw coal plant with pre-combustion CCS. It also awarded $564 million to 19 biofuel projects. Some of these are ‘second-generation’ biofuels, for which the carbon balance is better than oil’s. Others are to produce fuel from non-food feedstocks such as corn stalks or wood material, which are needed to prevent global food prices increasing and rainforests being cleared because existing agricultural land is being used to grow fuel rather than food. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is a passionate exponent of second-generation biofuels. However, not all the $564 million is going to such projects. Some is going to projects that are directly (through life-cycle emissions) or indirectly (through impact on land use changes) bad for the climate. These should be stopped immediately.

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