SUBJECT :Climate Change 
Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan is merely one of the ways that will help it fulfill an existing pledge to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005 levels.

“The biggest, most important step we have ever taken to combat climate change”.

That is how President Barack Obama described the Clean Power Plan he unveiled last week. The Plan aims to cut, by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from US power plants by 32% from 2005 levels.

To many, the plan is a “war on coal” by the Obama administration, which is keen to claim global leadership ahead of the climate change summit in Paris this year-end that is expected to deliver a landmark climate agreement.

The announcement is the most specific the US has ever made on its emission reduction roadmap. But while the Plan has triggered intense debate within the US — and strong criticism from many coal-bearing states — it has elicited lukewarm response from the international community. It isn’t difficult to see why.

America’s record on climate

To begin with, the Clean Power Plan is not a new or additional emission reduction target that the US has committed itself to. It is merely one of the ways that will help it fulfill an existing pledge to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005 levels.

But more than that, the US track record on climate action has hardly inspired confidence.

In the early 2000s, when it was the world’s largest emitter, it shied away from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol under which it had been assigned an emission cut target of 7% from 1990 levels, to be achieved by 2012. It was only in 2009, before the Copenhagen Conference, that the US took an emission reduction target – 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. On 1990 levels, that translated to a mere 4% cut. It is struggling to achieve even that: at the end of 2013, US emissions were barely 8.5% below 2005 levels.

Now, ahead of the Paris Conference, when every country has to reveal its climate action plan for beyond 2020, the US has said it will cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. Studies have shown that is largely a business-as-usual scenario from the 17% target for 2020, and therefore, hardly ambitious.

Obama’s description of the Plan as the “biggest, most important step” is a comment on how timid the US has been in fighting climate change.

The Plan and opposition

The Plan seeks to define an upper limit on carbon emissions from individual fossil fuel fired power plants, who have until 2030 to go under the limit. The US has about 1,000 coal- or gas-based plants, each with several units, and the Plan will apply to 3,100 of the most polluting units. The plants can do emission trading – that is, a polluting unit can buy carbon space from one that is within the limit. And a strong thrust will be given to ensure that the US produces 30% more energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The Plan will ensure that 870 million tonnes of carbon emissions are avoided by 2030. But the Plan has met with strong opposition from several quarters, including US states that rely mainly on coal-fired power plants, ever since an early draft was released last year. The Plan is likely to be contested in Congress, and possibly in court.

Clean coal

870 million tonnes over 15 years might seem trivial when the US is emitting close to 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. Annual emissions dipped a little from 2008 due to the financial crisis, but have been rising since 2012.

But the significance of Obama’s Plan lies elsewhere – and holds an important lesson for countries like India, which are much more dependent on coal than the US for producing electricity. Despite the revolution in solar energy production, whose global installed capacity has grown almost eight times since 2010, and the stress on other forms of renewable energy, dependence on coal will continue for three or four decades, especially in the developing world.

Obama’s Plan is trying to ensure that coal in the US becomes and remains clean for the time that it is around. It is a message that needs to reverberate across other coal-dependent countries, mainly India and China, who have some of the dirtiest coal power plants.

More than 60% India’s power is produced in coal-fired thermal plants. Despite the planned massive boost to solar and wind energy, absolute consumption is only going to increase as India tries to lift power generation 3.5-4 times in the next 20 years.

The need for ‘cleaning’ coal is therefore obvious — and of utmost importance in meeting India’s climate objectives. A coal cess introduced three years ago and since quadrupled, has created a resource pool to fund research and development. The funds pool contains Rs 10,000 crore, but the R&D initiatives are missing.

India also needs to develop cost-effective technologies for carbon capture and storage solutions, which attempt to tap emissions and store them away, in rocks under the earth’s surface for example, so they are prevented from being released in the atmosphere. This is a temporary solution, but something the world is looking at with great interest.

India’s noises on climate strategy are heavily dominated by plans to upscale renewable energy, and massive afforestation. Clean coal is hardly visible, and that has to change. Its impact would be much greater in India than Obama’s Plan would have in the US.


Source: 10 August, 2015, The Indian Express