18 January 2010: Obama’s first year

President Obama has done more to control climate change than President Bush ever did. However, that is hardly setting the bar very high. A President McCain would also have been much better than Bush (though a possible future President Palin probably would not).

The more important question is whether Obama has done enough in his first year. So, how well have Obama and Energy Secretary Chu done on providing finance and promoting energy efficiency, renewables, CCS and electric vehicles? A very positive assessment is made by the Center for American Progress:

By 2011, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)…will double the generation of renewable electricity from the wind, sun and earth. ARRA will also lead to energy efficiency retrofits in 1 million homes by 2012. And President Obama’s new fuel economy standards would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil. Additional benefits will accrue as the president and Congress finish some 2009 clean-energy initiatives and additional efforts are launched in 2010.

(See Climate Progress: A breath of fresh air: Obama’s amazing first year.)

The Obama administration has done well on energy efficiency, CCS and electric vehicles (see Policies and performance in Obama’s first year). 8Gw of wind was installed in the US in 2009, which is actually slightly less 2008 (8.3Gw), but at least the recession did not cause a collapse in wind installation. In the past, US financial support for biofuels has gone mainly to ones such as corn-to-ethanol, which are worse for the climate than oil is (see Biofuels). Energy Secretary Chu promotes ‘second generation’ biofuels, which are better in their direct effect (in that they emit fewer greenhouse gases than oil), but may still have damaging indirect effects, notably leading to deforestation as food has to be grown somewhere.

Last week, Chu announced awards of nearly $80 million (from ARRA) for ‘Advanced Biofuels Research and Fuelling Infrastructure’. $33.8 million of this goes to research into biomass-based hydrocarbon fuels. The Department of Energy promised that this money would lead to a full life-cycle analysis of the environmental impacts. That is good news, as it should mean that the direct effects are better than oil. However, the use of land-based biofuels would still increase pressure on forests. $44 million goes to promote commercialisation of algal biofuel. Algal biofuels do not have the problem of displacing food production, so that award is progressive, but algal biofuels are still a long way off.

The President is trying to get several climate-relevant bills through the Senate, including:

  • The Jobs for Main Street Bill, which expands existing energy loan programmes to include large-scale residential and commercial energy efficiency projects.
  • The American Clean Energy and Security Bill, which includes $150 million for nine combined heat and power plants and other industrial waste energy recovery projects, and also requires utilities to reduce demand by 5%.
  • The cap and trade bill to reduce emissions from power plants and factories.

The last of these is strongly opposed by fossil fuel companies and the lack of significant results at Copenhagen makes it even more difficult to get this though the Senate (see Reuters: U.S. cap and trade looks out of reach in 2010). However, Obama should not put to much priority on this, since the EPA already has the powers to regulate CO2 as a harmful pollutant (see 9 December 2009: Small steps in the UK budget, much larger ones in the US).

Instead, Obama should put his efforts into ensuring that the EPA introduces greenhouse gas pollution limits for large industrial polluters. And he should use his rhetorical skills to convince more Americans that controlling climate change is in their economic as well as health interests. A December poll by Zogby found that 48% were not worried about climate, 36% concerned and another 16% falling somewhere in between (see Forbes: Obama’s Unappreciated First Year).

However, in the end, it is the President’s undoubted ability to inspire that must be used to try to reverse the increase of climate deniers.

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