President Obama’s climate change legacy

Today sees the inauguration of America’s 45th President, Donald Trump. Before November 11, few people expected to hear those words, and a good number of people apparently still refuse to accept the fact. A series of protests are planned on inauguration day, but that is the sign of a free and democratic society. No matter how unpopular President Trump with some groups, he will be in office for the next four years and even opponents will have to live with that.

The real question is what he can achieve in that time. Inevitably, political leaders cannot do everything they intend to or all their supporters would like. The mark of a successful presidency is that the incumbent achieves more than is expected of him (or, sometime in the future, her) while minimising disappointment. With such high expectations on his shoulders, it was almost inevitable that President Obama’s two terms would prove to be something of a let-down. On the other hand, Presidents Reagan and Clinton both exceeded expectations and history will most probably continue to see them in a positive light.

Today, there will be some who see the new Presidency as the end of the world as we know it, while others look forward to a period of radical (and divisive) change. In practice, of course, although he is often talked of as the most powerful man in the world, the powers of the President are limited by the Constitution and balanced by the strong and independent powers of Congress and the judiciary in the shape of the Supreme Court. Even the US President’s hands may be tied, unless he can get Congress on his side.

There are exceptions to that, when change can be made via Executive Order. This power can normally only be adopted at time of crisis – particularly during a war – but FDR governed this way to bring in the New Deal. That truly did make Roosevelt the most powerful man in the world, but most presidents enjoy far less latitude and can only use this route in specific. In the case of Barack Obama, he used his executive power to ratify the Paris climate change agreement last October, jointly with President Xi of China.

In China, of course, no democratic vote is necessary for decisions like this. In the US, international treaties have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate (the stumbling block to ratification of the Kyoto protocol during Bill Clinton’s period of office), but Mr Obama avoided this by insisting the Paris accord was an executive agreement. This week he has sought to bolster his country’s commitment to this by giving $500 million to the UN climate change fund (Obama administration gives $500m to UN climate change fund). This doubles the resources of the fund to date.

Also this month, the outgoing president put his name to an unprecedented policy article for the journal Science (Obama says shift to green energy is ‘irreversible’ despite Trump). In this, he says that American power companies are unlikely to start using more coal (despite the new president’s rhetoric that went down so well in the mining states) and that the country should not pull out of the Paris agreement unless it wants to lose its ‘seat at the table’. In support of his belief in renewable energy, he cited the 10% growth in the American economy during his two terms, coupled with a 2.5% drop in energy consumption and a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions.

These figures are correct, but the conclusions he draws are questionable. The drop in energy intensity is a continuation of a longer-term trend, boosted in this case by the state of the economy following the 2008 global financial crisis and higher oil prices during the first Obama term. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is certainly down to a shift away from coal, but mainly towards domestic shale gas rather than wind and solar.

Certainly there are plenty of renewable energy schemes in the US, and the sustained drop in fixed costs, particularly for solar energy, have led to some rather optimistic views from some commentators, including Barack Obama (see also Reasons to be cheerful: a full switch to low-carbon energy is in sight). To quote from this article: “…optimism about successfully tackling climate change has never been more justified because 2016 was the year in which it finally became obvious that the world had the technology to solve the problem…Solar power costs around the world fell by an average of another 15% in 2016, meaning that electricity from the sun became the cheapest form of energy generation in places as diverse as Chile, parts of the Middle East and the south-west of the US.”

The author, Chris Goodall, fell into the common trap of assuming the cost of each kilowatt hour of electricity generated can simply be added together to arrive at a total system cost. Would that it were so simple. In reality, even ignoring the additional fixed costs for transmission and grid resilience, considerable conventional backup is needed for times when the Sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

As I am writing this, the electricitymap.tmrow.co website shows that Germany, the country most committed to increasing renewable energy use via the so-called energiewende is currently supplying most of its electricity demand from coal-fired power stations (many of them burning domestically-mined lignite, one of the dirtiest fuels in use today). The country is using some 35GW of its nominal 50GW coal-fired generating capacity, while the 40+GW of installed wind turbine capacity is producing only about 5GW. Early on a winter’s morning, solar (installed capacity nearly 40GW) barely produces any electricity.

The reality of this situation, which is typical of the last week or so, teaches the lesson that no amount of solar or wind generating capacity can currently provide energy security. In business-oriented America, this lesson will already have been noted. Anything President Trump may do, including a possible pull-out from the Paris accord, will make little difference to how the country generates most of its energy in the face of economic reality. Shale gas will be the fuel of choice for some time yet, and even coal is unlikely to be as competitive.

What the new president does will, however, will be an important signal to the global community that America will look after its own interests first. Despite the risk-free rhetoric from President Xi about energy intensity, China will continue to do the same. With the world’s two leading economies not playing ball, countries seriously committed to reducing fossil fuel use will have to find economic ways to do so if they are not simply to accelerate their decline in global competitiveness.

Refocussing on developing new, efficient technologies rather than pouring subsidies into existing, inefficient ones could actually be the change that finally allows renewable energy to make a serious contribution to energy security. For those people appalled by a Trump presidency, this could be one of several possible silver linings.

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