Opinion: Obama’s challenge on climate change

President Barack Obama today announced a broad attack on climate change. His hope is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and he aims at every target imaginable — every target within his authority, that is.

Included in his plan are solar and wind projects on U.S. public lands, new energy-efficiency standards and fuel-economy requirements, and greater limits on greenhouse-gas emissions of all kinds.

Unfortunately, he had to leave out any strong action Congress could take. That includes a meaningful tax on carbon, the kind of change that’s needed to bring greenhouse-gas levels 80 percent to 95 percent lower than they were in 1990 and thus keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. In 2009, Congress declined to take responsibility, and as there’s no reason to hope it would now, Obama is right to press ahead on his own.

Whether he’s successful will depend a lot on how his administration manages two of his biggest initiatives: placing carbon-emissions limits on existing U.S. power plants and helping the developing world switch to cleaner forms of energy.

Both of these efforts hinge on moving away from coal, which still provides 42 percent of electricity in the U.S. and almost 80 percent in China.

Reducing Pollution

Domestically, Obama wants to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution from power plants, which produce 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions and a third of its greenhouse gases. But doing so without drastically pushing up the price of power will take more finesse than can be managed by simply hitting plants with a uniform limit.

So it is promising that administration officials say they will ask the states to offer up their own ideas. A flexible state-by-state strategy, along the lines of what was proposed in March by the Natural Resources Defense Council, could give the power industry a seat at the table and allow it to reasonably manage a transition from coal to natural gas and wind, solar and other renewables.

Under the NRDC plan, for example, the EPA would give each state a budget for its carbon emissions, taking into account the state’s existing power-generation mix. Those with more coal plants would initially be allowed a higher level of emissions, but they would be expected to bring the levels down as years pass. Each state could come up with its own plan for meeting its emissions budget, including putting efficiency measures in place and switching to cleaner fuels.

Internationally, Obama proposes various initiatives to lower greenhouse-gas emissions — including cooperating with other countries to develop carbon-capture technology, ending investment in new coal plants abroad and making deals to lower tariffs on clean-energy technologies.

He should also focus on getting countries such as China access to cheaper natural gas. With Asian prices almost four times those in the U.S., it’s little wonder that natural gas powers only 4 percent of China’s electricity. A new gas pipeline from Russia should increase the supply, and the Obama administration is right to encourage it. Exports of U.S. natural gas would help, too, not only in China but also in many other developing countries.

As we’ve argued, the new secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, should move quickly to approve new export terminals for shipping liquefied natural gas abroad. The Department of Energy has so far approved two terminals, but 20 more applications are pending for licenses to sell to countries that don’t have free-trade agreements with the U.S. Some of those should also be cleared. And a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, now under negotiation, would increase natural gas exports to Europe, which has recently been buying more American coal.

Increasing Resilience

Even if entirely successful, Obama’s push against emissions wouldn’t be enough to completely prevent climate change. That’s why we’re glad to see that he also proposes to help the U.S. live with the consequences. For example, he wants to establish a state and local task force on preparedness, assist local communities, and make federal and military buildings more resilient.

Protecting existing public and private property against floods, storms and heat waves isn’t free, however. A recent proposal from Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP) for New York City alone is priced at $20 billion.
And Obama’s plan is mostly silent on the need for new funds, to say nothing of where they would come from. Here is an area where Congress, along with state and local governments, ultimately will need to step in.

Meanwhile, the president is smart to do all he can on his own to turn down the engine that’s powering climate change.