As the global leader of climate action, European governments want to know how President Obama’s major climate speech affects Europe – and particularly whether the actions he outlined can allow the United States to reach its commitment to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels (or even exceed that level).
The big picture: Obama’s speech amounted to the first time that President Obama had given voice to the environmental movement’s core narrative at length. Suddenly, he wasn’t just talking about energy security and the economy and “all of the above” – he was talking about protecting the future of life on the planet against very real threat of climate change. Watching the speech, I felt like I’d just woken up from 12 years of Bush-Cheney, and yesterday was the first day of the Obama administration.
Nonetheless, the success of implementation will vary widely depending on how rigorously Obama and his appointees follow up – and how willing they are to continue to take on the polluters responsible for the climate crisis. If rigorously implemented, Obama’s plan could reduce pollution by more than one billion tons of pollution per year, or 15-20% of current US emissions or more, as my colleague Cecilia Springer details here.
Within this context, the precedents Europe sets and several major decisions that the EU makes will have a surprising influence on how much the United States actually reduces emissions. Here are a few examples worthy of consideration by European governments that want to encourage the United States’ new direction.
Power plant rules and the biomass loophole. The success of President Obama’s clear commitment to capping pollution from power plants rests on many factors, including whether EPA can finalize the review before Obama finishes his term. But one that wasn’t talked about in the speech, but which is hugely significant, is whether EPA will close a massive loophole in how it accounts for carbon. EPA is undergoing a three year review process to evaluate how it accounts for power plants clear-cutting forests and burning them for power. As medieval as this sounds and is, this process actually happens on a pretty large scale. Why? It’s because of a massive accounting loophole in how greenhouse gases are measured. Burn coal, natural gas, or oil, and all that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is tracked, and under the new EPA rules, will be capped as well.
But if a power company like Dominion or Britain’s Drax instead just sends bulldozers out to clearcut a forest and load the trees into its furnace and torch them, the carbon accounting rules magically declare them carbon neutral. While that ultimately might be true over many centuries, regrowing forests takes a very long time.
Indeed, a recent European study found that burning trees produces 80 percent more emissions than coal over a 20-year time period and 49 percent more over a 40-year time period. Nonetheless, the EPA continues to account torching forests to be as clean as solar. It would take 100 years for biomass use to even perform better than coal. EPA’s scientific advisory board came to a similar conclusion. Nonetheless, the EPA continues to account torching forests to be as clean as solar. Given that we need to reduce climate pollution now to avoid crisis, we can’t use policies that take a century to start working.
What’s more, burning forests for energy takes up a lot of wood that would otherwise go to meet global demand for paper and wood. That drives up prices and creates severe pressure on rainforests in Malaysia, Indonesia, Peru, the Congo Basin, and other regions that are being rapidly pulped to meet the excess demand created in part by biomass policies.
Perhaps the worst impact of this loophole is that it actually lengthens the lifespan of the coal-fired power-plants at the root of the climate crisis. Because utilities are able to meet their renewable energy goals by burning trees, they don’t have to shut down coal plants and switch to cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar. The end result of the biomass accounting loophole is really just more coal (and more destroyed forests).
So where does Europe come in? The continent is the biggest exploiter of this greenhouse gas loophole, and sources approximately a third of its wood pellets from clearing American forests. Europe is project to meet a whopping 60 percent of its renewable energy target through burning this so-called biomass – not exactly the clean energy source envisioned when Europe implemented its clean energy policies. Not only is this high use of biomass directly driving up US emissions and limiting the ability of US forests to suck up carbon dioxide from the air (hard thing for a forest to do when it’s being burned in a UK or Belgian power plant), it’s also setting a terrible precedent for EPA’s own decision. Closing this loophole may be the number one thing Europe can do to help the United States meet its targets – and improve its own environmental performance at the same time.
Europe driving American coal. America’s coal industry is a dead man walking. The combination of cheap natural gas, increasing renewables, Clean Air Act rules, and the Sierra Club’s grassroots campaigns to shut down coal plants are paying dividends: American coal consumption fell a remarkable 11 percent in 2012. But that decline in coal use hasn’t been matched by an equal decline in global greenhouse gas emissions. That 11 percent drop in consumption was partly offset by a 23 percent jump in exports, with exports setting a new record in March. Much of that coal is going to Europe. European coal consumption is propping up the U.S. coal industry, at the same time that it’s killing 22,000 Europeans per year from local pollution impacts. Taking steps to tighten Europe’s cap and further promoting clean energy is essential to helping President Obama achieve America’s climate goals.
Tar sands. The blockbuster announcement of President Obama’s speech was that for the Keystone tar sands pipeline, “our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” The State Department’s much-disputed finding that the pipeline would not increase emissions rests almost entirely on its contention that whether or not the pipeline is built, the oil industry will find a way to get tar sands onto the world market. That finding is in serious doubt now. The Government of British Columbia just rejected Enbridge’s attempt to build a pipeline to the Pacific. But Canada’s government under Stephen Harper is still lobbying Europe to change its scientific assessment of tar sands’ greenhouse gas intensity under the European Fuel Quality Directive. Europe’s rejection of these lobbying attempts will mean that tar sands oil can only be sold at a price discount, effectively making the Keystone pipeline the only major economically viable route for expanding tar sands oil’s global market share – undermining the State Department’s conclusion that the pipeline won’t reduce emissions.
Standing firm on aviation. At least five airplanes interrupted President Obama’s speech, a perfect symbol of how the aviation industry’s pollution is totally out of control. In 2012, Europe expanded its carbon cap to cover aviation, one of the world’s fastest growing sources of pollution. But the US airline industry, led by United Airlines, launched an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign to block Europe from applying the law to international flights to and from Europe. Though they failed in court, they managed to persuade President Obama in his pre-election, pre-climate focus days to sign a law that gives his administration the power to block US airlines from complying with Europe’s climate law – even when their flights are taking off and landing in Europe!
As a result of this pressure – and a fear that international airlines would cancel orders for Airbus planes to protest Europe’s climate action – the EU announced a one-year delay on implementation to give countries of the world the opportunity to impose a market-based cap on pollution through the International Civil Aviation Organization. Negotiations are ongoing, but the airline industry has a decades-long history of blocking international climate action. If the international process continues to disappoint, Europe can help encourage the United States by re-instituting its cap on pollution from international flights. The move is expected to only cost about $3 per trans-Atlantic flight, less than the cost of a bag of potato chips on board. Given President Obama’s new commitment to action on climate change, doing so would help bring another important US polluter under a cap, and set the stage for future Clean Air Act regulation of airline pollution.
In sum, Europe has a critical role to play in helping the United States meet or exceed its carbon goals. By staying true to the spirit of its own climate and clean energy laws, it can help point the way for an America that is just beginning to see that Europe’s civilizational commitment to climate action just might have something going for it.