Reasons to be cheerful (part 2)

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011
Geothermal resources in the US

The COP17 climate talks in Durban have come to an end with 16,000 delegates from 190 countries having struggled for a fortnight with the sheer procedural difficulties of negotiation on that scale. The drama of shifting alliances, with the less developed nations and island states siding with the EU to fire a warning shot across the bows of the BASIC block (or should that now be the BASICUS block) was diverting, but it is no surprise that the new roadmap for international action on climate change doesn't actually provide much guidance to the future.

Agreement on the governance of the Green Climate Fund and progress on REDD are, of course, welcome but still leave plenty of related issues unresolved. Beyond the doors of the International Convention Centre Durban, however, life goes on. Does this mean that we are doomed to the oft-quoted “business as usual” scenario? I don't really think so because below the level multilateral inaction, there's plenty happening – even in the United States.

US turnaround

Carbon emissions from coal use in the US dropped 10 percent over the four years between 2007 and 2011, and emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent during that time, according to a recent update by the Earth Policy Institute. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by six percent.

The net effect of these trends was that energy-related carbon emissions in the US have fallen by seven percent in four years. If the US continues on its present trajectory it will have no problem hitting the target of reducing CO2 emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, as President Obama vowed on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

Few people believed him at the time, particularly the blow-hards in the US Congress, but guess what? By comprehensively failing to come up with a sensible agreement on cutting the US federal budget deficit these same folk have pretty much guaranteed further US economic stagnation and, with it, the continued decline in carbon emissions. I know the US Congress doesn't get a lot of respect these days, but this selflessness is surely worthy of one-handed applause.

More seriously, however, there are plenty of signs that the US is starting to undergo a long-overdue shift away from its carbon-intensive ways. In October California – which accounts for 13 percent of US GPD and would be the world's eighth largest economy if it were an independent country – finalized its regulations for cap-and-trade which kicks in in 2013 and will cover 85 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2015.

California's is the most comprehensive state-level GHG cap-and-trade system in the US, but certainly not the first. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which covers 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, has been successfully operating a market for power plant emissions since 2008.

And, despite the misgivings by Congress, action is also taking place at the US federal level with the Environmental Protection Agency, backed by a series Supreme Court rulings, now regulating CO2 emission as a dangerous pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Starting next year the average fuel consumption of new vehicles sold in the US will be 30 percent better and even higher standards are being proposed for introduction in 2017. As of the beginning of this year regulatory measures also started to apply to the GHG emissions of large stationary sources, such as power plants.

Combined with tighter regulation on emissions of mercury, sulfur and ozone – and considerable public pressure – this means the near de facto moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants in the US will now evolve into a situation where coal-fired plants will start to be shut down. Of the US total of 492 coal-fired power plants currently in operation, 68 are already scheduled to close.

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