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Reality leaving Waxman-Markey in the dust …

July 7th, 2009 · 1 Comment

The Waxman-Markety American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) targets for renewable energy and climate emissions reductions are, to put it simply, far from what they should be. And, let’s put aside “should be”, they are far weaker than they could be.

Let’s stick with 2020 targets for a moment. The bill, as passed by the House, calls for a 17 percent reduction in US CO2 emissions compared to 2005 levels. This target puts the US just a few percent below 1990 emissions levels when the (and now almost certainly outdated and not aggressive enough)  International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for developed countries to achieve a 25-40 percent reductions in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020.  Thus, the Waxman-Markey target falls far short of what the most authoritative scientific advice recommends.

It also, however, falls short of what is happening in the United States even in the absence of climate regulation.

Another piece of evidence has come out highlighting just how unambitious the ACES climate change targets are when compared to reality.

The latest Department of Energy Energy Information Administration (EIA) projection leads to a conclusion that US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will fall by at least 4.3 percent in 2009. This comes after 2008 saw about a 3 percent drop in GHG emissions.   All told, the United States is already nearly half-way to the Waxman-Markey targets nearly 11 years ahead of time and before the legislation has even become law.

Hmmm … the best scientific work strongly supports much stronger targets. Stronger targets would help boost the economy via sparking a green jobs boom.  And, stronger targets are easily achievable via elements already part of law (through the stimulus package) and serious energy efficiency (such as the energy efficiency measures within ACES) and even more investment in clean energy deployment.

Why bother instituting a carbon regime, with all its overhead costs, if the set targets are so short of what they must and can be? Why bother instituting a carbon regime, with its massive subsidies to some of the worst serial polluters, if we can do better without it?
To be clear, legislation instituting a serious climate regime would be good for US security, good for the US economy, good for the future habitability of the nation, good …  And, Senate action to strengthen ACES into something resembling a serious climate regime would be welcome.

Stepping back — is it the economy, stupid?

While economic problems are a major driver in reduced pollution levels (2008 oil prices leading to reduced driving and weaker economic demand; financial meltdown leading to reduced industrial demand for both electricity and directly burning coal), there are systemic factors fostering this shift as well.

Coal is of declining importance: Coal continues its fall in terms of percentage of total electricity.  Coal has not been 50% of US electricity for awhile and the downward trend is one that we should continue … and work to accelerate … to help foster ending our coal addiction, weaning ourselves off coal rather than expending $10s of billions on illusion of “clean coal”.

Increased natural gas supplies (and, therefore, lower prices) are leading to natural gas electricity production displacing coal in increasing cases. With each passing day (literally), the United States has more wind-power production. Since the marginal cost, per kilowatt hour, is essentially zero, once deployed, wind systems will always seek to produce and sell power — displacing fossil fuel systems which have high marginal costs for each additional kWh.

Are EIA’s numbers overstating the case?

If anything, EIA’s numbers actually are understating the likely reductions in US GHG emissions. There is an assumption, within these numbers, of a quite significant economic rebound. For example, from the report

Consumption. Retail sales of electricity in the industrial sector continue to decline, having fallen by 12 percent during the first quarter of 2009 compared with year-ago levels.  Total consumption of electricity is projected to fall by 2.0 percent for the entire year of 2009 and then rise by 0.8 percent in 2010

So, to date, electricity demand is down by 12 percent for the year yet the total demand will be just 2.0 percent lower than 2008? Huh …? (By the way, demand is down yet prices, per kilowatt hour, are up 8 percent so far this year. Come off it, Republican naysayers, it isn’t Waxman-Markey and dealing with dirty energy that will drive up energy costs. The policies from the last Administration have been quite successful in that regard.)

Looking at other elements, not just the electricity, suggests that 2009 could see over five percent lower emissions than 2008.

Oh, by the way, that project 0.8 percent increase projected for 2010 demand? Deploying renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass (including methane), etc…) will total far more than that, suggesting decreased fossil fuel burning for electricity in 2010, even if (as EIA predicts) there is a rebound in demand.

Highlighting a related ACES issue

The fact that US emissions are, already, significantly below 2005 levels suggests many potential issues with the ACES structure. The bill is based on an assumption of continually increasing US emissions between 2005 and 2012. This looks like a questionable assumption. This suggests that the starting “cap” level will actually be above actual emissions, potentially significantly above. This has many implications, including that the bill’s provisions could provide little (to no) additional incentive to reduce emissions in that early period. In addition, this suggests that there could be significant additional “bankable” emissions permits that could be ‘saved’ for use in later years.

A very simple modification to the ACES structure could help reduce (or eliminate) this problem. Why not have a “notwithstanding any other provisions, a year’s total emissions permits will be no higher than 1.5% lower than the average of the three previous years.” A provision along these lines would create conditions for continuing to drive down emissions and enable accelerating the success of reducing emissions levels that we are almost certain to see through energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment.

Setting emissions targets do work …

While we are seeing reductions, this is not a suggestion that there is not real and meaningful power in serious targets, with incentive structures to do better than those targets. As with the Clean Air Act’s successes in driving down sulphur and turning the tide on Acid Rain, 2009 is seeing a significant (24+%) drop in SO2 emissions as industry sees the coming, 2010, implementation of a new air pollution regulation, the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). When given serious targets, American industry has a strong record of not just meeting, but exceeding, the requirements. Yet another suggestion that we would be far better off setting serious and meaningful, rather than simply very easy to achieve, targets.

Accentuate the positive

While economic troubles are a key factor driving down fossil fuel use and GHG emissions, there are other factors at play. Yes, compact fluorescents do actually cut a household’s energy demand. Yes, introducing clean energy does displace polluting energy.

While ACES has impressive energy efficiency elements, they could be stronger.

While ACES does support renewable energy deployment, the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) is utterly inadequate.

We should look to strengthen the energy efficiency elements, we should look to strengthen seriously the renewable energy targets (and funding). And, with those in place, this will enable putting the  emissions targets in line with scientific guidance.

As Set Energy concludes:

Bottom line: US greenhouse gas emissions are falling quickly in 2009 and bringing us within close reach (a few years) of 1990 levels. This fact means that the Senate can comfortably promote Waxman-Markey’s goal of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 or even strengthen it back to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020. We need their leadership to get climate legislation to the President’s desk. Renewable energy and efficiency are ready to simultaneously drive economic growth, create jobs, and lower our nation’s emissions. I will keep you updated on progress as it happens.

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Tags: cap and trade · climate change · climate legislation · coal · electricity · emissions · Energy · energy efficiency · energy information administration

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 ACCCE Leader Pleas for Carbon Price // Sep 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    […] growing fossil fuel.”  Leer didn’t choose to mention the uncomfortable point that coal use for electrical power generation has fallen in the United States: both as a percentage of to….  Hmmm … This fall, combined with the strengthening growth of renewable power and the […]