Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

Opinion

Obama climate speech: More hot air?

  • "Addressing the issues in realistic language is the first requirement for leadership" (Photo: Mikko Itälahti)

“The best address on climate by any president ever” is said to be Al Gore’s reaction to President Obama’s climate speech. I agree. It is a masterpiece in communication.

However, if one tries evaluate what good for the climate can be expected from the likely follow-ups to the different announcements, there is much less to be enthusiastic about.

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The speech is strong on praise and belief, some justified, but most of it less so.

Nobody should earn credit for the fact that low natural gas prices have successfully challenged coal as a key fuel for electricity production.

But there is a big difference between directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants” and a policy that would prevent the building of new coal-fired power plants and secure a permanent reduction of the use of coal in existing plants.

Background papers from the White House suggest that only in 2016 is the EPA expected to come forward with proposals on what emission values should be for new and existing power plants.

This is not a roadmap that allows for much to be achieved before 2020 or still less for the US to be able to show leadership, as mentioned several times in the speech, in the UN negotiations towards 2015.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, both on when and on how much the US power sector will reduce emissions beyond what has so far been the result of temporarily cheap natural gas, Obama’s call “for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas”, even if conditioned, seems premature.

India, just to mention one obvious target, will have justified objections to this continued US push for reductions in developing countries, at a point where its per capita CO2-emissions are still less than 10 percent of those of the US.

Some have seen Obama’s speech as a ray of hope for a global agreement in 2015. This reflects either bad faith or naivety.

Nothing in the speech points to US real action that will convince sceptical developing countries that the most important industrialised country by far has committed itself to leadership on greenhouse gas emission reductions as laid down in 1992 in the Climate Convention and confirmed in 1997 in the Kyoto Protocol.

Moreover, not even the EU can claim to have met that “obligation”. Unfortunately, there is little hope that environmental NGOs and others, still pushing for a 2015 agreement, will use the speech as an opportunity to climb down from their present position and start looking for an approach that could deliver at least some reductions.

Obama is right in blaming the Republicans for their destructive partisan approach to virtually every important policy area in the US. No policy has suffered more from this than climate change.

On top of that comes the fact that for the US to ratify an international treaty, a simple majority in Congress is not enough. Two thirds of the Senate has to back it, a requirement that appears impossible in the foreseeable future, and which further restricts the US from assuming global leadership.

Straight back to Copenhagen

In reality, Obama’s speech takes us straight back to COP 15, three and a half years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. Obama at the time similarly stressed the seriousness of the problem, insisting, like now, that “America intends to take bold action” and that an international agreement (which, at that time, he was equally unable to have ratified in Washington) was urgently needed.

I fail to see why there should be more optimism today. The fall in US emissions in recent years is almost entirely due to cheap natural gas, expensive oil and the recession. Natural gas prices in the US are already on the rise and the two other factors are, with good reason, vigorously fought against by the US administration. Real leadership is not convincingly conveyed.

The misery of the situation does not mean that Obama’s policy proposals deserve a “could do better”.

What he is suggesting is as far as - maybe even further than - US politics allow him to go. But he does deserve a “could do better” in honesty. The gap between the self-congratulatory, upbeat tone and the meager policy is too wide.

American co-leadership on climate change is desperately needed. Addressing the issues in realistic language is the first requirement for leadership, a requirement that European politicians on climate change could also be advised to respect.

The writer is a former director in the European Commission and head of the European Commission’s negotiations on the UN Climate Convention and the subsequent Kyoto Protocol

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