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President Obama’s optimism on clean energy is more hopeful than realistic

Progress is never unstoppable.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 24: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the keynote address at the National Clean Energy Summit 8.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 24, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Political and economic leaders are attending the sum
Which way is clean energy going?
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama has written a piece in Science magazine about progress on climate change and clean energy under his administration, progress that he, or at least his headline, characterizes as “irreversible.” (It’s one of several pieces he’s publishing in scientific journals in the waning days of his presidency. Like how presidents do.) It also serves as an implicit plea to his successor not to light it all on fire.

It is well-reasoned and thoroughly cited, but reading it, it’s hard to shake a sense of melancholy. Even to the very end, Obama thinks that facts, logic, and persuasion will temper his political opponents. On this subject, as on so many others, Obama is more optimistic than the facts can bear.

In fact, progress on clean energy is just barely underway in the US. And much of it is reversible — if not reversible, stoppable; if not stoppable, slowable. Much of it can and will be discarded by the incoming administration.

Obama’s arguments will be as faint gusts before the hurricane scheduled to make landfall on January 20.

Electricity ≠ energy

Last week, my colleague Brad Plumer advanced our mutual war on optimism by scolding those who say “clean energy is unstoppable.” He noted that people often over-extrapolate from the power sector, mistaking progress on clean electricity for progress on “clean energy” generally.

And sure enough, it’s one of the primary points in Obama’s piece. He says, “the American electric-power sector—the largest source of GHG emissions in our economy—is being transformed, in large part, because of market dynamics.”

There are two key points to remember about this.

First, the transformation in the power sector has mostly been about fuel switching, i.e., natural gas displacing coal. To hit America’s more ambitious mid-century carbon targets, the power sector is going to have to decarbonize completely, and relatively fast. That means all the natural gas will have to be replaced (or its carbon buried).

Laying the conceptual and policy groundwork for those more ambitious mid-century cuts was a big part of Hillary Clinton’s climate plan. “Market dynamics” alone will not get us that far.

Here’s what the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts in its “no Clean Power Plan” scenario through 2025.

electricity by fuel (

You can question EIA’s assumptions, but nothing in there looks unstoppable.

Second, that mid-sentence phrase, “the largest source of GHG emissions in our economy,” is not necessarily true. Recently, as Plumer noted, US transportation emissions nudged ahead of power-sector emissions for the first time since 1979.

US CO2 emissions from transport exceeded those from power gen in the 12 months thru Feb 2016. (Sam Ori)

Transportation — cars, trucks, and airplanes — was, at least in February, “the largest source of GHG emissions in our economy.” (Of course, those lines could cross again, especially if power sector emissions start rising again under Trump.)

This isn’t meant as a gotcha, but simply to make the point that power-sector emissions are less than a third of US carbon emissions. They are the cheapest and easiest to reduce, and they are the ones declining, but meeting even our near-term carbon targets means reducing emissions in other sectors as well, notably transportation and industry.

“Market dynamics” won’t do enough there either — policy is needed. Obama was moving in that direction with fuel economy standards for vehicles and federal appliance and building standards, but those policies are in the Trump administration’s crosshairs. They are not irreversible.

In short, the promising-but-inadequate decline in carbon emissions from the US power sector might continue under Trump, or they might plateau or start rising again, but either way it won’t be enough to meet America’s short-term Paris targets, much less get on a trajectory toward its mid-century targets. It falls somewhat short of “unstoppable.”

Obama defends non-zero-sum international agreements

Most plaintive is Obama’s case for the Paris climate agreement, which is not the first case he’s made with Trump as the intended audience.

The Paris agreement, he says, rests on “a fundamental shift in the diplomatic landscape, which has already yielded substantial dividends.” That shift is that every country is pledging reductions, not just advanced economies.

He says:

Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition.

There is truth to this. Just from the narrow viewpoint of its own interests, the US is better off at least formally participating in the Paris agreement, if only to be able to affect its future development and see first-hand what other countries are up to.

Still, I tried to imagine Donald Trump being swayed by this argument and had no luck.

Holding other countries to their commitments means being held to ours. Demanding transparency means having it demanded of us. Encouraging ambition means having our own efforts critiqued. The Paris framework means a mutual web of obligation and trust.

One thing xenophobia-exploiting populists almost always agree on is that the US should largely free itself of international treaty commitments, especially on social issues. And this is about a problem the incoming president thinks is a hoax!

The Trump administration doesn’t even need to withdraw from Paris, or hold any kind of vote on it. It is entirely in its power to simply ignore the agreement, which, after all, has no binding legal power. And there is zero pressure from anywhere inside the Trump coalition to meet Obama’s carbon targets. All the incentives point one way.

But wait! You knew this was coming:

This should not be a partisan issue.


gallup: human activities responsible Dunlap et al, Environment

Obama concludes:

Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.

Yes, it would. But Trump does not seem to agree, or at least he’s hiring people who don’t agree. And the Republican Congress does not agree. Together, they can reverse, halt, or hobble Obama’s efficiency standards, his pollution standards, his moratorium on coal leasing, his CEA guidance on climate impacts, and his international climate commitments. (For the full potential damage, see this story.)

They shouldn’t. It will harm US strategic and economic interests. But they will.

I don’t want to be completely doomy. Obama is right that the international effort to address climate change has far more momentum than it used to. He’s right that renewables are beginning to compete on price and that the power sector is facing enormous changes no matter what Trump does. He’s right that the US has shown, at least in tentative and preliminary form, that carbon emissions can fall even as the economy grows.

But progress on climate change is still only just beginning. All the biggest challenges lay ahead. And much of what has been done is still fragile.

Progress is never unstoppable. That, if nothing else, we should have learned in November.

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