Arc-Bending in a Two Party System


Is US climate policy doomed?!

Specifically: Prez-elect Trump has indicated strong climate skepticism (now personified in his transition appointee Myron Ebell). 

Along these lines, the press has focused particularly on Obama's Clean Power Plan, often (somewhat inaccurately) identified as his climate policy centerpiece. Because the Plan has been stayed by SCOTUS, and its rules are not yet promulgated by the EPA, it is comparatively easy for Trump to reverse tighter Federal regulations on electric (mostly coal) power plants, meant to promote cleaner alternatives (renewables and natural gas). And due to its symbolic importance, welching on the CPP might provide cover for other nations to back out of the Paris Accords.

So what's the damage? 

Emissions time series chart_111616bp.png

When you actually look at the numbers, the Clean Power Plan (or CPP) turns out to have a pretty modest forecast impact on US greenhouse gas emissions. Its reductions more or less neutralize the GDP-driven GHG increases forecast by the US State Department. Indeed, the CPP is but a fraction of Obama's raft of climate-responsive policies. For example, his boring but toothy updates to energy efficiency codes and standards are likely to have a much greater impact than the splashy CPP, and are much harder (or at least more brain damaging) to undo.

A second observation is about time: both Obama and the erstwhile Clinton campaign's emissions reduction goals depend on trend acceleration well beyond their terms in office. In order to hit the oft quoted IPCC target of an 80% reduction to 1990 levels, trends would have to accelerate even harder past those presidential promises (the green dotted line above).

To some extent, this acceleration makes sense-- in the dramatic cost curves for solar, wind, batteries, and LED lights, one can see that "going green" is requiring fewer and fewer tradeoffs; more experience using and integrating these technologies also mean less and less adoption risk.

But in another sense, expecting climate policy to go in just one direction-- at least so long as climate action is denied and demonized on the right-- is an absurd assumption. The Dems were always going to lose an election (or four) between now and 2050. Also notable that the biggest emissions rise since 1990 was actually under Clinton I-- the first 2 blue bars along the bottom of the chart.

The bottom line is: we cannot rely on Executive action alone to bend the arc of our national emissions (and by extension, probably no masterstroke global treaty-- carbon tax or otherwise-- either). Climate change must become a bipartisan issue, felled by a thousand cuts, or we ain't gonna get there.

Still, immediate Federal-Executive battlegrounds on clean power certainly exist. Here are 2:

  1. Regulating upstream methane emissions from natural gas extraction-- the difference between natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to renewables, and a misleading substitute that is no cleaner (from a GHG perspective) than coal; and
  2. Balancing FERC's pro-markets imperatives with clean energy enablement, esp.
    • Preserving existing nuclear plants, currently losing out to natural gas, as carbon-free energy sources (see the ongoing NY ZEC case in light of SCOTUS's Hughes v. Talen); and
    • Incumbent independent power producers (IPPs) tilting capacity and reliability rules to extract rents,  both generally and as a counter to growing wind, solar, and demand-side resources. See, eg, FERC Chairman Bay's dissent re: PJM's peculiar capacity incentives.

Let's say Trump rolls back Obama's EPA methane rulemaking, and does nothing as powerful IPPs batten on esoteric electric markets, Even here, there are things we can do. We, as consumers, can push utilities and ESCOs and corporate consumers to ensure the integrity of upstream natural gas extraction (if it works for organic kale...). Less fluffily, Trump's stated commitment to infrastructure might include transmission lines, which would do plenty for renewable energy integration. Finally, some worst-case cronyism for the IPPs would surely extend to their nuclear holdings, at least preserving this carbon-free generation in the mix.

Clinton II would have continued Obama's march toward strong efficiency standards and renewable deployment, allowing a more measured pace to the 2050 IPCC goal. Yet any of the key but arcane issues above might have fallen through her Administration's cracks. And in the case of increasingly powerful post-PUHCA utilities and power companies, let's face it: Hillary was never going to be a trust-buster.

Even as we organize politically for 2018 and 2020, states, markets, civil society, and consumers still have meaningful-- and ultimately more impactful-- hands to play: setting targets, sending market signals, and forging public consensus. Technological innovation is doing much of the work on the supply side, while state renewable portfolio (and EE) standards drive up demand. Behind the conservative bluster, bipartisan public opinion is unmistakably shifting toward acting on climate.

Whoever is president, the work must continue.