US president Barack Obama announced major new regulations on pollution on Monday of this week.
His supporters greeted it as a dramatic step forward in the fight against climate change. But the plan is far less ambitious than it sounds. The only ones who really have much to celebrate are the bosses of fracking companies.
Obama’s aim is to cut carbon pollution from US power plants by 30 percent by 2030 based on 2005 levels. His new scheme involves a cap and trade system similar to the one that has been such a dismal failure in Europe (see box).
State governments would have a lot of freedom as to how they implement it, and the toughest measures have been delayed until after 2030.
A major shift has been going on in US power generation since Obama’s last attempt to pass legislation on emissions.
Coal plants have been closing as new plants burn cheap shale gas obtained through fracking. This has allowed some states to run emissions reduction schemes that seem to be a success. Obama’s decision to measure cuts against 2005 levels—before the fracking boom—means that his may seem successful too.
But this success is an accounting trick that does nothing for the planet.
Burning shale gas does release fewer carbon emissions per unit of energy than burning coal. But it comes at a cost of pollution in the places where the gas is extracted, which could cause major health risks to people nearby.
And burning the gas creates significantly higher emissions of methane, which lead to far more intense warming in the short term than carbon dioxide. The EPA—the regulator that will run the scheme—underestimates this effect by more than a third compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And while the US may burn less coal at home, it is exporting it to be burned abroad. When exports and domestic emissions are counted together, the total could actually be increasing.
One of the consistent themes of Obama’s presidency is using shale oil and gas and pipelines to Canada’s tar sands. His latest scheme is an attempt to consolidate and put a green spin on this.
But the US fracking boom could have peaked. With the easiest wells depleted, frackers are having to target spots that are more expensive to drill.
Jockeying between polluting industries won’t stop climate change. That would mean shutting the polluters down—and investing massively in renewables such as solar power.
What is cap and trade?
In cap and trade schemes, polluting firms are given permits to release a set number of emissions.
They can then buy and sell these on a carbon market. The idea is that it will become more expensive to pollute—giving firms an incentive to cut their emissions.
When the permits were issued they gave big polluters and their financial partners a big injection of free money. And when European emissions fell as a result of the recession, it made the price of carbon lower and took the teeth out of the scheme.
The schemes allow companies to get more permits if they “offset” emissions by investing in often dubious schemes.
And the US scheme will only apply to power generation—not the transport and manufacturing sectors.