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Archives for May 2009

Has Obama lost his bottle on climate?

Justin Rowlatt | 14:51 UK time, Thursday, 28 May 2009

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London, England - Remember how President Barack Obama said he would change Washington? Well, it seems he has failed.

Listen to this...

It is Obama speaking in San Francisco in January last year. He seems full of hope and idealism, boasting about his plans to introduce a cap-and-trade system that will set a price for carbon.

It is a radical vision. The system will be "as aggressive or more aggressive than anyone else's out there", he says. All the permits will be auctioned which, according to Obama, means "every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases that are emitted would be charged to the polluter".

"So", he proudly tells the interviewer, "if someone wants to build a coal fired plant they can, it's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for the greenhouse gas that's being emitted".

I have written about how carbon pricing systems like cap-and-trade could transform whole economies. This is clearly a man who agrees.

Now fast forward a year and a half and take a look at our latest film (above).

We travel to Texas to see the low-carbon America Obama envisioned, a forest of wind turbines growing up among the pump jacks and pipelines of the oil state.

The idea was his cap-and-trade system would turbo-charge America's transition to this new clean energy world. And, just last week, the cap-and-trade bill President Obama asked Congress for passed the committee stage in Congress and now looks set to be made law. But it is nothing like the radical legislation Obama spoke about in San Francisco.

Instead of the aggressive cap Obama promised, carbon emissions will be reduced by just 17% from 2005 levels by 2020. Europe (whose carbon trading system has been widely criticised as ineffectual and weak) has set a far more stringent standard: cuts of 20% from the much lower start point of 1990 by 2020.

And where is the auction that was going to ensure that polluters pay for every unit of greenhouse gases emitted? It's gone, struck out from the bill.

Now just 15% of permits will be auctioned, the rest will be given away free. Thirty-five percent of all permits are being handed to electricity companies, the guys who own those coal plants Obama said could be bankrupted.

What is more, a ceiling has been set on how far carbon prices can go. The carbon price - the engine that was supposed to drive the change in the economy - has been capped at $28 a tonne.

If you need evidence of the effect that will have, look no further than our film. In Sweetwater, Texas we meet David Fiorelli who's company, Tenaska, wants to invest $3.5bn on the world's first full scale Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) coal plant.

Many greens say industrial scale CCS is unproven. Mr Fiorelli says that is plain wrong. He says the problem with large scale CCS is that it is very expensive. As a result his company plans a plant that will draw in a range of revenues to make it pay.

It will sell the 600 megawatts the plant will produce (200 megawatts are needed to strip out the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the coal). It will sell on the CO2 it captures to oil companies which will use it to pump out 10 million extra barrels of oil a year (Tenaska says the CO2 will stay underground). But to make the plant viable it also needs a carbon price of $40-$50 a tonne.

At a stroke the new bill has threatened the viability of the great hope for clean fossil fuel plants, CCS. Not what Obama imagined his legislation would do when he was talking about it back in San Francisco.

Now, I understand that democratic politics is about compromise. I understand that the architects of this bill needed to make concessions to the power companies and to congressmen and women from coal states. But did the compromise really need to be on this colossal scale?

In the run up to the crucial climate change conference in Copenhagen in December the world is looking to America for leadership on the climate issue. It is clear President Obama, his Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and his climate team understand the degree of danger climate change represents.

So, this is what I want to know: why didn't President Obama use some of his extraordinary political capital to force through truly transformative cap-and-trade legislation?

Ultimately the question I really want answered is this: has Obama, as we say in Britain, lost his bottle? What do you think? Leave your comment below or get with the new social media revolution and tweet me right here, right now.

Is coal the number one enemy?

Justin Rowlatt | 12:40 UK time, Thursday, 21 May 2009

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Here is our latest film. It tackles the most important climate issue of all - coal.

Some readers may be surprised that I rank coal at the very top of the climate agenda. I do so for a very simple reason. Unless most of the world's vast reserves of coal are kept underground then rapid climate change is, according to the scientific consensus, inevitable.

Oil and natural gas are in relatively limited supply, and will almost certainly be burnt, but there are still vast reserves of coal - nearly 1,000bn tonnes of the stuff.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the CO2 stored in the world's known coal reserves would be enough to push atmospheric CO2 concentrations up to around 600 parts per million.

There is a lot of debate about what constitutes a safe level of atmospheric CO2. Pre-industrial CO2 levels were around 280ppm, now the figure is 389ppm. But virtually all scientists agree that levels above 550ppm would guarantee catastrophic climate change.

That is why US climate campaigners have made coal a key focus - just take a look at our film.

It is different here in Britain. Climate campaigners here have made the battle to block the third runway the most high profile climate issue. John Sauven, the director of Greenpeace UK, predicted the site would become "the battlefield of our generation".

In tonight's film we have an interview with the eminent Nasa climate scientist Dr James Hansen. He helped defend six campaigners charged with criminal damage after occupying the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent. He told the court the protest was justified because the 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emitted daily by the plant could lead to the extinction of 400 species. The accused were acquitted.

But when campaigners asked him to support the third runway campaign he refused. It was a major blow to the campaign. Dr Hansen said he believed the protests would not help the battle against global warming and do not deserve support.

Is Dr Hansen right? Does making aviation the focus of the climate campaign risk putting off potential supporters who don't want to change their lifestyles? Moreover, if the world's oil reserves will be burnt isn't trying to stop aviation fighting a lost cause?

That's Dr Hansen's view: "Coal is 80% of the problem," he tells us. "You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts," he said when the Observer newspaper asked him why he would not support the Heathrow campaign. "The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that."

Should the British environmental movement put more emphasis on coal? Is this another case of the green movement being part of the problem?

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