Obama’s Energy

sun

 Happy New Year!

I have been away from this wonderful blog for far too long. Thanks to A.M., Ian and Jeet for carrying the ball in the latter half of 2008, and 2009 will see me blogging at Sans Everything once again.

Let me start by sharing some energy policy suggestions I offered to President-elect Obama recently on the Huffington Post.  What do you think? Am I missing some big  items? Do you agree or disagree with the ideas below – and if so, why? If you had to advise Obama on priority changes in energy policy, what would you say?

 

Transforming the Energy Economy 

by John Haffner

With volatile oil prices, growing global energy demand, and the spectre of catastrophic climate change, energy has become a front-page and household issue — not just in the United States, but around the world. The next president has the opportunity to lead a radical energy transformation towards a future based on low carbon, reliable and sustainable energy. There are seven steps the next administration could take that would help drive this transformation.

First, the United States must lead global climate discussions before and after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in late 2009. Carbon reduction targets for the period from 2012 to 2050 must be rooted in the latest scientific findings on the pace of climate change, and the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol must include aggressive intermediate reduction targets so as to drive investment decisions.

Second, the United States should introduce a federal moratorium on new coal-fired plants that do not have carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as an aggressive time frame for retirement or retrofit of existing coal-fired plants without CCS. It should challenge other countries to do the same.

Third, the United States should challenge every country to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and 30 percent by 2030. It should commit to underwriting global and regional financing and policy mechanisms that support this objective.

Fourth, as the global community prepares to expand the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the administration must undertake serious efforts to restore the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to begin a discourse that looks beyond non-proliferation and towards disarmament. The president should review how to strengthen the oversight capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and devise a plan, in collaboration with other countries, towards universal (or near-universal) adoption of key international legal instruments to be used against proliferation: the Additional Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Fifth, the United States must adopt aggressive energy efficiency standards and codes nationwide, and the president must be willing to exercise strong leadership in challenging builders, cities and companies to adopt a wide array of visionary efficiency measures in homes, buildings, and transportation.

Sixth, the United States should reduce its domestic agricultural subsidy policies and apply sustainability criteria towards ethanol production — in comparison with other options — so that the United States will be able to expand the use of biofuels in a sustainable manner.

Finally, the next president of the United States should move away from the misleading rhetoric of “energy independence,” and instead embrace a new discourse of “energy interdependence,” a more enlightened language that recognizes that energy nationalism is dangerous for everyone, and global energy challenges will be solved together or not at all.

7 thoughts on “Obama’s Energy

  1. the latest scientific findings on the pace of climate change

    Will this include the scientific findings that show we are entering global cooling?

    It should challenge other countries to do the same.

    How about reversing those options? When the rest of the developing world agrees to control themselves, then we can consider it. However, refer to #1 above; may not matter.

    It should commit to underwriting global and regional financing and policy mechanisms that support this objective.

    Perhaps, and only perhaps. But in the event we do underwrite this, it is crtiical that we do not allow Iowa to select the winner. [continue reading for details]

    Fourth

    Agreed.

    the United States must adopt aggressive energy efficiency standards and codes

    Why?

    reduce its domestic agricultural subsidy policies

    This is the Iowa affect. Do you think that if Iowa was not so early in the primaries that we would be talking about burning food?

  2. John: Nice to have you back!

    I think all your suggestions are good ones, and the only nits I have to pick are with #4 and #7. With regard to the NPT and eventual disarmament, I think these are adjacent issues to that of the energy transformation we’re all seeking, but not integral ones. Surely the key message to stress is that the next president should advocate a major global increase in the percentage of energy derived from nuclear power (a la James Lovelock, right?), something that will indeed require a redesign of the current non-proliferation regime. Adding disarmament into this task list, however, is to turn a tough climb into an impossible one. I think we should focus on only those essential things that will halt the process of anthropogenic climate change. All else has to wait.

    On #7, you’re right of course that energy is a global puzzle, not a national one. But the most powerful country in the world has convinced itself that it is an exception to all things, so if that means that its president has to use partly misleading phrases like “energy independence” to get planet-friendly legislation passed, I can live with that.

    Looking forward to blogging 2009 with you.🙂

  3. Good op-ed, but I question this idea: “The United States should … apply sustainability criteria towards ethanol production — in comparison with other options — so that [it] will be able to expand the use of biofuels in a sustainable manner.”

    The only reason why sustainability standards are being contemplated for biofuels is because the environmental community has come to realize — rather belatedly — that the current generation of biofuels (with the possible exceptions of biodiesel made from waste cooking oil, and sugarcane-based ethanol) actually do NOT benefit the environment. However, the market for biofuels exists mainly because of mandates and subsidies. Eliminate those and you eliminate the need for complex, costly to administer and trade-law dubious sustainability standards.

    My fear, in fact, is that we will end up with some half-hearted standards that provide greenwash for the industry but do not deal with the fundamental problem of the indirect effects of diverting crops and arable land to biofuels. As long as that is occurring, production will take place elsewhere to make up what is lost to biofuels — often at the expense of native prairie and forest habitat.

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    Pino, I agree that the US farm lobby is a huge obstacle to sustainable biofuels – no argument there.

    On the latest scientific findings, here are two good articles:
    http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0901/full/climate.2008.142.html?utm_source=GHG+Management+Institute&utm_campaign=37094f62f2-Jan_2009_Mailer1_1_2009&utm_medium=email

    and

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=634&utm_source=GHG+Management+Institute&utm_campaign=37094f62f2-Jan_2009_Mailer1_1_2009&utm_medium=email

    Have a look at those and tell me what you think.

    Ian, thanks for your comments. On #4, I do not agree “that the next president should advocate a major global increase in the percentage of energy derived from nuclear power,” unless by “major” you mean a few percentage points. I’ll say a bit more about this another time, but just holding constant or increasing moderately nuclear’s share of energy supply will require considerable investment, given that many plants will approach their end of life in coming decades and demand will grow considerably in any event.

    And I am sympathetic to your argument that all else has to wait until we halt the process of anthropogenic climate change. But if the peaceful side of nuclear energy is to be expanded, we need to worry about diversion. If we are not ready to discuss disarmament – down say to a few hundred missiles on all sides – at the very least we should be ready to discuss strengthened safeguards in tandem with any talk of the peaceful expansion of nuclear energy.

    On #7, you raise a good point: if the language of energy independence leads to good US legislation, then never mind the rhetoric. I am reminded of Thomas Friedman’s comment that he unabashedly speaks from both sides of his mouth: he speaks geopolitical security to the Rush Limbaughs of the world, and he speaks green to tree-huggers. There is something to be said for this pragmatism in the very short term. The difficulty is that in any major energy issue one can think of – biofuels and market subsidies, demonstration projects for carbon capture and storage, nuclear safeguards, gas and oil markets, even the supply chains and policies for renewables – there is (as you know) an important global dimension. And bear in mind that Obama is speaking not only to his domestic audience: he is also speaking to an international one. Is it not better that he try to strike a consistent tone between both of those audiences from the get-go? Now is his chance to repair the perception of American exceptionalism and to improve our global efforts in managing energy.

    Ronaldo, I am glad you picked up on and questioned my idea about sustainable biofuels. I share your fear about the potential for greenwash, but I also think we would be foolish to write off biofuels altogether, especially as we look to the next generation of biofuels and very limited options for the transportation sector. And so long as biofuels will have a role, surely it is better that they do so against good sustainability criteria than none at all. We can work on eliminating bad subsidies and we can work on improving sustainability criteria at the same time – and these two imperatives apply not just to biofuels, but to the energy sector in general.

  5. John, you write: “[I] think we would be foolish to write off biofuels altogether, especially as we look to the next generation of biofuels and very limited options for the transportation sector. And so long as biofuels will have a role, surely it is better that they do so against good sustainability criteria than none at all. We can work on eliminating bad subsidies and we can work on improving sustainability criteria at the same time … .”

    Did anybody here say anything about “writing off biofuels”? There are a number of airlines that are spending their own money testing biofuels in their jet engines. That makes sense, and if they want to do that, fine. It makes sense also for governments to spend some money on R&D into next-generation biofuels, though how much they spend on biofuels and how much on investigating other things (like finding cures for diseases) can and should be debated.

    But the vast majority of current government support is going to expand a biofuels industry based on crops, and to keep the crop-based biofuels industry in business. Now that that policy seems to have backfired, what is the response of governments, and of some environmental groups that see themselves as leaders in developing sustainability standards? Not to reform the current policies but to patch over the problems with sustainability standards.

    There is an unholy alliance being formed: the industry will not accept being subject to sustainability standards unless it gets something (subsidies and mandates) in return; and the standards-setting industry will say nothing against the subsidies and mandates because it would be biting the hand that feeds it: if the subsidies and mandates were withdrawn, the standard setters would be out of business.

    There is another problem. Even under the best of scenarios, it will take years for governments to agree on a set of international sustainability standards for biofuels. In the mean time, either no standards will be applied (or very weak standards), out of fear of a WTO challenge from exporters, or each government will go off and set their own standards, thus creating a spaghetti bowl of rules and regulations that you can bet your bottom dollar will favor domestic producers (and the multinational, and largely European and U.S. based certification industry) and throw up new barriers to developing-country exporters, like Brazil.

    In any case, as I said in my first comment, any sustainability standards that do not address the displacement effect will be as effective as pissing in the wind. “Sustainably produced” feedstock crops for biofuels will be channelled into biofuels, and new forest land will be cleared to sell non-certified crops to the food, feed and (in the case of palm oil) cosmetics market. The net effect will be reduced biodiversity and higher GHG emissions.

    The first-best policy, by far, is to cut the Gordian knot: eliminate the mandates and subsidies stimulating biofuels production. (And apply a carbon tax on transport fuels, while you’re at it.) Meanwhile, while we are waiting for the cost of 2nd and 3rd-generation biofuels to come down, the world can work on developing sustainability standards for those fuels. But the only biofuels that will not lead to greater environmental harm than the petroleum fuels they displace are those that are not only NOT produced from crops, but are NOT produced on arable land. But don’t think that enforcing that kind of standard will be easy.

  6. Thank you, Ronaldo, for your thoughtful and detailed comments.

    There are two big issues here, one is the future of biofuels and the other is the question of subsidies and mandates in the energy sector. I will try to address these in the form of new posts in the coming weeks.

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