Trying to Reclaim Leadership on Climate Change (NYTimes.com)

At the end of his first year in office, President Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen, Denmark, and made a big promise: that the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions substantially by 2020 — a bold and risky pledge that hinged on a balky Congress to make it possible. His efforts became bogged down within months, and Obama’s pledge to the rest of the world soon looked like a pipe dream. On Monday, Obama is planning to bypass Congress and take one of the biggest steps any U.S. president has ever taken on climate change, proposing new rules to cut emissions at power plants. Yet, by itself, the president’s plan will barely nudge the global emissions that scientists say are threatening the welfare of future generations.

“Is it enough to stop climate change? No,” said Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, California. “No political leader in the world has a serious agenda to do that.”

Even after Obama’s inability to get his major climate change proposal through Congress in 2010, fate has intervened to help him toward his goal. Thanks partly to a surfeit of natural gas that few people saw coming, emissions in the United States have already fallen 10 percent since 2005 and are still heading down, even without Obama’s new rule.

It is clear Obama’s immediate goal is not to solve the emissions problem, but to get the country moving faster in the right direction. The new rules alone offer little hope that the United States and other nations can achieve cuts on a scale required to meet the internationally agreed limit on global warming. But experts say that achieving the pledge Obama made in Copenhagen — a 17 percent reduction in the nation’s greenhouse gases by 2020, compared with the level of 2005 — would be quite likely, if his plan survives.

Obama’s effort is aimed not just at charting a new course inside the United States, but at reclaiming for the country the mantle of international leadership in battling climate change. If the policy coaxes more ambitious goals from other countries, experts say it could be a turning point. The test of that will come soon, as world leaders meet in New York in September seeking to make headway on a new global climate treaty. The leaders are supposed to pledge ambitious new emissions targets for their countries by next spring, with a final treaty due in late 2015.

“He’s the first American president to permanently push down the U.S. emissions trajectory and get us within striking distance of the kind of global leadership that will be needed to tackle the problem,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The world’s nations have set a goal to limit the warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial level. If that is to happen, many studies suggest that global emissions need to peak no later than 2020 and then begin to fall. Today, emissions are not falling nearly fast enough in the West, and those reductions are being swamped by a rapid rise in the East. Experts say that a global peak in 2020 is exceedingly unlikely, if not impossible — and that will be true even if the United States and other nations manage to keep the pledges they made in 2009.

Well into the 2020s, it will still be technically possible to meet the global warming target, but the longer nations put off taking bold action, the more expensive and disruptive it will be to do so once they finally get serious.

Experts say Obama is slowly piecing together a set of policies that may wind up being at least as effective as the law Congress refused to pass in 2010. Until now, his biggest step has been a set of automotive efficiency standards that will eventually require cars sold in the United States to get more than 50 mpg on average.

Obama’s plan for power plants is not expected to become final for another year, after extensive public comment, and will be subject to lawsuits and a possible attempt in Congress to block it. But in its current form, it will lock in a shift toward natural gas that is already underway in the United States, for economic reasons.

Over the past few years, as the technology known as hydraulic fracturing has brought a flood of natural gas to market and driven down the price, utilities have been switching from coal to gas to generate electricity. That lowers emissions because natural gas emits roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal to produce a given amount of power. But natural gas is still a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, raising the question of how the country will wean itself off that fuel in the years to come.

Under the Clean Air Act, the legislation Obama is relying on to institute his policy, states will have a major role in carrying out the plan, and they may make widely varying decisions about how to do so. But experts generally expect the policy to lock in the trend of growing national reliance on natural gas, even if the price goes up.

“Whether President Obama wants to admit it or not, he has definitely declared a war on coal,” said Chris Faulkner, chief executive of Breitling Energy, a Texas oil and gas company that stands to benefit from the Obama plan. “The era of coal is coming to an end. We are entering the era of natural gas.”

To be sure, many coal-burning power plants will continue running, possibly for decades, assuming states find ways of offsetting their emissions, such as efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses that could lower overall power demand. But if the plan stands, the coal industry will, at best, face a future of gradually declining market share.

Perhaps the biggest question about Obama’s plan is whether it will rev up the engine of American innovation, producing new technology and economic approaches that make the country’s — and the world’s — climate goals seem more achievable.

For more than a decade, people working in the twin centers of U.S. economic ingenuity, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, have been agitating to get going on the climate problem. But they have been stymied by lack of a clear national policy about where the country was headed.

Many of the nation’s technological luminaries, including Bill Gates, have urged Congress to double or triple the country’s spending on basic research and development in the energy field. Congress has largely ignored them, and Obama has no ability on his own to steer that kind of money toward the problem.

But some experts said his new plan may at least send a signal to private capital that now is the time to get involved in trying to solve the energy challenge.

“Once the rules are in place, then the engineers really are unleashed on the question of, oh, what’s the cheapest way to do this?” said Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, a think tank. “American engineers are pretty good at this sort of thing.”

Article Author: Justin Gillis and henry Fountain, The New York Times

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