Bush's global heating proposal – responses and S&R analysis

Posted on April 17, 2008

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President Bush announced yesterday that his administration would address global heating. This basic fact has been covered, and re-covered, in media around the country and around the world. The general response appears to have been negative, with a widespread view internationally and from domestic environmental and progressive organizations that Bush’s proposals are a serious case of “too little, too late.” And U.S. conservative and libertarian groups consider Bush’s announcement to be little more than political appeasement.

Today I’d like to dive a little deeper into Bush’s claims about his global heating record and his new proposal. But first, a small sampling of responses from around the world.

“There is no way whatsoever that we can agree to what the US is proposing,” South African Environment and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said in a statement. (Source: AFP story)

“President Bush’s global warming proposals could have been worse,” said Competitive Enterprise Institute Director of Energy & Global Warming Policy Myron Ebell. “But it was still a pointless speech that was unnecessary. While the President said that the global warming debate was intensifying, global warming alarmism is collapsing all around the world. With today’s proposals, however, the President has managed to re-energize that alarmism.” (Source: Competitive Enterprise Institute news release)

“President Bush’s announcement appears to be an effort to throw sand in the gears, offering a weak goal in place of strong legislation.” (Source: David Sandalow, an expert on climate change who worked for the Clinton administration, quoted in a NYTimes Story)

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, dismissed Bush’s proposal as “grossly short of what the nation both needs and is capable of.”
“The president has articulated a progressive vision for a comprehensive solution to climate change,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who has voiced concern about the economic cost of the Senate climate bill. (Source: Seattle Times story)

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Bush’s remarks showed that “he has no intention of cooperating” to get climate legislation passed this year. “He’s basically saying take two aspirins and call President Obama, Clinton or McCain next January,” Markey told reporters. (Source: AP story)

“This basically sounds like the same quarterback calling the same play,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “It’s just another way of Bush saying no.” (Source: Washington Post story)

Carl Pope, the executive director of the largest US environmental group, the Sierra Club, said: “Under the president’s plan we’ll need a real miracle to save us from global warming.” (source: BBC story)

“I commend the President for acknowledging that we have a climate change problem and a responsibility to address it, but as I’ve said, the time for real action is now,” [California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger] said. (source: Xinhua story)

“His speech follows the motto: ‘losership instead of leadership,'” [German environmental minister] Sigmar Gabriel said in a statement issued in Berlin. “We are glad that there are other voices in the USA.”
Chinese participant [at climate talks between the 17 largest CO2 emitting nations in Paris] Su Wei said it was good news that Bush was talking about emissions at all. But he added, “to take measures to slow down the increase in emissions is not enough.”(source: International Herald Tribune story)

I’d like to draw your attention to that last one. The Chinese government representative at a global heating conference criticized Bush’s plan as being insufficient. If that’s not a slap in the face, I don’t know what is.

President Bush made a number of claims that are testable in his speech (available online here). What follows below is a point-by-point investigation of those very claims.

Claim #1

I have put our nation on a path to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions. In 2002, I announced our first step: to reduce America’s greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent through 2012. I’m pleased to say that we remain on track to meet this goal even as our economy has grown 17 percent.

co2intensity.jpgThis is simultaneously true, false, and utterly meaningless. There are multiple ways to define greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity used by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their GHG intensity tracking through 2006 (the latest year for which complete data is presently available). The way that President Bush defines it is in equivalent CO2 (CO2e) emitted per unit of GDP, and there has indeed been a significant decline in this measure of CO2 intensity since 2002 (-9.6% according to the EIA). And, as Bush said, we’re on track to meet, or even slightly exceed, his goal of -18% intensity from 2002 to 2012. However, as you can see from the image at right, by the measure of equivalent CO2 emitted per unit of energy produced, the U.S. intensity has stayed pretty much flat since 1990. So by that measure of intensity, Bush’s plan is failing and, perhaps worse yet, qualifies as misdirection on this issue.

What’s more damning, however, is the fact that his goal – -18% carbon intensity by GDP measure – is meaningless. If you take the EIA’s data and look at any available 10 year period (1990-2000, 1991-2001, etc. through 1996-2006), you discover the following: the cumulative reduction in CO2e per unit of GDB without any policy to reduce GHG intensity has varied from -17.7% to -21.8% and averaged -19.1%.

In other words, Bush is trying to claim credit for GHG intensity reductions that would have happened regardless of any policy on his part.

Claim #2

As part of this strategy [to stop the growth of emissions by 2025], we worked with Congress to pass energy legislation that specifies a new fuel economy standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and requires fuel producers to supply at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022.

There’s no denying that President Bush did sign the legislation that raised fuel economy and required the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. However, only one of these items will actually do anything to reduce GHG emissions by 2025, and even then it’s not enough to stabilize the growth in emissions just from transportation, never mind the rest of the U.S. GHG emissions.

Let’s start with the problems in the renewable fuel statement. First, the requirement for “36 billion gallons of renewable fuel” is a cumulative requirement – no more than 6 billion gallons will be provided in any given year. Second, there is significant evidence that corn ethanol (at present the only U.S. domestic means to produce such large quantities of renewable fuel) offers no savings in GHGs over petroleum. And third, recent science on the carbon debt incurred by clearing land for biofuels suggests that it’ll take 93 years for corn ethanol GHG savings to exceed the gases emitted by the change in land use – and the best case current crop, sugarcane, still take 17 years, or 3 years longer than the President said (2008 to 2022 is only 14 years…). In other words, the renewable fuels will actually increase GHG emissions, not reduce them. (Note also that the EIA projects that all that renewable fuel will save us a grand total of 0.8 cents per gallon of fuel in 2025 (see Table 3).)

The increase in CAFE standards passed last year to 35 MPG for the passenger car fleet will save a significant amount of GHG emissions. EDF estimated in late 2007 that the savings would be between 316 and 587 MMTCO2e (see Table 2) by 2030, depending on the model used. This is only 12-23% of the reductions required to stop growth in emissions, never mind actually reduce emissions as the best available science indicates is necessary. Far more aggressive CAFE standards would be required, or significant changes in other area such as electricity generation, energy efficiency improvements, etc.

Claim #3

We also mandated new objectives for the coming decade to increase the efficiency of lighting and appliances. We’re helping states achieve their goals for increasing renewable power and building code efficiency by sharing new technologies and providing tax incentives. We’re working to implement a new international agreement that will accelerate cuts in potent HCFC emissions. Taken together, these landmark actions will prevent billions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

These statements are generally true. However, according to the EDF analysis linked above, even the best-case scenario doesn’t result in a complete arresting of growth in GHG emissions. Without these changes, EDF estimated that 2030 GHG emissions would be 153% of 2005 levels – the best-case model they used had GHG emissions still at 111% of 2005 levels.

Claim #4

In 2009 alone, the government and the private sector plan to dedicate nearly a billion dollars to clean coal research and development.

True, although the Coal Utilization Research Council urged the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development to increase the budget for clean coal research from $648 million to $853 million.

Claim #5

Our incentives for power production from wind and solar energy have helped to more than quadruple its use.

Probably true, although this statement is true even if “helped” means that the incentives boosted use by 1% out of the 400%+ increase. President Bush did extend the tax credits for renewable energy twice thus far, once from December 31, 2005 to 2007, and again to December 31, 2008. The problem is that short term extensions like this actually do very little to help the long-term planning required for electricity generation projects, such as siting, transmission line construction, permitting, EPA studies, etc. So, while this is technically true, the truth is a bit more nuanced than President Bush implies.

Claim #6

[U]nder a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. This would automatically trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act of greenhouse gases all across our economy — leading to what Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell last week called, “a glorious mess.”

If these laws are stretched beyond their original intent, they could override the programs Congress just adopted, and force the government to regulate more than just power plant emissions. They could also force the government to regulate smaller users and producers of energy — from schools and stores to hospitals and apartment buildings. This would make the federal government act like a local planning and zoning board, have crippling effects on our entire economy.

First off, let’s address President Bush’s example, the Clean Air Act, and the idea of “original intent” for a moment. On April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The question of intent, as mentioned in the ruling, hinged on the definition of an “air pollutant,” which is, according to US Code Title 42 Section 7602 (g), “The term “air pollutant” means any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive (including source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material) substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.”

Under the Act’s clear terms, EPA can avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climatechange or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why itcannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do. It has refused to do so…. (Source: MASSACHUSETTS ET AL. v. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ET AL.

The four dissenting justices concluded that a) the states bringing suit had not proven losses due to GHG emissions and so had no legal standing to sue the EPA in the first place and b) that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case at all. However, it appears that the dissenters are the ones trying to alter Congressional intent here – Justice Scalia’s dissent claims that the EPA has the authority to define “air pollution agent or combination of agents” as it sees fit, even though the majority opinion says that the second half of the definition quoted above actually defines what an “air pollution agent or combination of agents” is. And Scalia himself agrees with the second half of the definition.

The EPA is tasked with protecting public health and welfare, and “welfare” is defined as follows:

All language referring to effects on welfare includes, but is not limited to, effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, manmade materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, and climate, damage to and deterioration of property, and hazards to transportation, as well as effects on economic values and on personal comfort and well-being, whether caused by transformation, conversion, or combination with other air pollutants.

If the EPA is tasked with regulating pollutants that affect soils, water, crops, weather, and climate, then greenhouse gases are clearly pollutants.

As to how this would affect the entire economy, President Bush is resorting to rank fearmongering. The federal government lacks Constitutional authority to interfere with local zoning restrictions, and I can see no way that the EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions results in the EPA telling a school or hospital what it can or cannot do – unless, that is, the hospital has a local source of electricity in order to protect itself from electrical grid outages. And can we really say that having a natural gas power plant for a hospital should be immune to greenhouse gas regulations just because it’s attached to a hospital?

Finally, the EPA already regulates at the local level. Every car on the road is required to have smog control built in and there are maximum radon emissions into basements that are regulated at the federal level (but that hit hardest on the regional and local levels). And the EPA regulates these and more by setting maximum emissions that individuals and municipalities are required to hit or face significant fees. There’s no reason to believe that EPA regulations of GHGs would be any different.

Claim #7

We must all recognize that in the long run, new technologies are the key to addressing climate change.

This is President Bush’s ultimate claim in yesterday’s speech, and it’s ultimately misleading. Technologies will be vital to combating global heating, but Bush’s suggestions that incentives alone will lead to those developments. This is traditional and failed supply-side-only economic thinking applied to what is fundamentally not an economic problem. Incentives are vital and will help, but disincentives are going to be equally important. Those disincentives will be caps or taxes on carbon emissions, may be progressive/revenue neutral taxes on fossil fuels, and almost certainly will be new local, state, and federal regulations.

I’m all for using the power of greed to rein in GHGs, but when you realize that we need to decarbonize our entire civilization, the scale of the problem becomes apparent. And only through massive investment of both private and public money, regulations, incentives, and taxes will we achieve anything resembling the reductions in GHG emissions that President Bush has called for.

And President Bush hasn’t even called for what climate scientists say is truly needed to properly address global heating.

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