WASHINGTON, October 11, 2016 – “Acting on climate change is actually in our best economic interest. It is the best economic strategy for the country.”
That’s according to Brian Deese, senior White House adviser on energy and climate policy. Addressing a Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy forum Tuesday, Deese said that a decade of data overturns the traditional view that “GDP and carbon emissions grow together.”
Deese explained that the “perceived linkage between affordable energy on the one hand and carbon on the other has also defined the politics of climate change.” That’s because, until the GDP/carbon link is broken, reducing carbon emissions reduces income. But he said the good news is that breaking the link means incomes can grow – as they have grown – while carbon emissions decline. So decoupling carbon and gross domestic product, he said, means that people no longer need “to accept a lower standard of living” in order to address “climate change that by its nature is diffuse and slow moving.”
Instead of forcing trade-offs or sacrifice, Deese said, the administration’s actions to reduce carbon emissions have created innovation and new jobs, “contributing to what is the longest streak of total job growth on record.”
Referencing statistics from the Energy Information Administration, Deese said that since 2010, “U.S. GDP grew by roughly 11 percent while energy sector emissions fell by about 6 percent.” He added that this delinking of GDP from carbon emissions is taking place not only in the U.S. and other advanced post-industrial economies but also around the world and even in “areas like Bulgaria and Uzbekistan that still have expanding industrial sectors.”
Deese pointed out that the most recent data show the global economy growing steadily while “energy sector emissions stayed flat.
This view linking economic growth to the administration’s climate policies hasn’t convinced everyone.
American Petroleum Institute spokesman Michael Tadeo says natural gas and private-sector innovation should get the credit, not the Obama administration.
“The United States is leading the world in the production of oil and natural gas and in the reduction of carbon emissions which are near 20-year lows thanks to clean burning natural gas,” Tadeo tells Agri-Pulse. “Our nation's leadership on these critical issues came from U.S. innovation in our industry and the free markets. Moving forward, we must embrace and promote America's energy renaissance for the benefit of American consumers, American workers, and the environment.”
Deese’s response is that he’s amused to see that “our most vocal critics have shifted from saying that Obama’s ‘job-killing environmental regulations’ are what’s killing the economy” to claiming instead that the economy’s growth spurt has been driven by private-sector innovation.
In its ongoing Energy Accountability Series, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns of dire consequences “if certain energy-related ideas and policy prescriptions put forth by prominent politicians and their supporters were actually adopted.” The Chamber’s reports estimate that if new technology like fracking hadn’t transformed the U.S. into “the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world,” the U.S. would have lost 4.3 million jobs and $548 billion in annual GDP.
The Chamber reports also charge that “without the energy renaissance . . . electricity prices would be 31 percent higher, and motor fuels would cost 43 percent more.”
In contrast to the Chamber’s assertions, Deese insists that decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions has made a broad range of positive climate and energy policies possible. He lists one remaining obstacle as Congress’ failure to keep up with the rapidly changing economics of clean energy. He pointed to figures for declining costs since 2008: land-based wind costs down 41 percent, distributed solar PV down 54 percent, utility-scale PV down 64 percent, modeled battery costs down 73 percent, and LED bulbs down 94 percent. He credits these lower costs to the administration’s 2009-2010 investments in basic research, to extending “tax credits that provide an efficient subsidy for wind and solar,” and to “the Clean Power Plan which, when it takes effect in the early ’20s, will extend the market signal and incentive for these types of low-carbon technologies.”
Deese acknowledged that transitioning away from fossil fuels will impose costs and create both winners and losers. But he said he expects at least some bipartisan support from Congress in the coming lame duck session, particularly in the case of supporting administration plans to provide more help for coal communities affected by the transition.
Despite continuing legal challenges, Deese said he’s “entirely confident” that the administration’s Clean Power Plan to limit power plant carbon emissions for the first time “is going to survive and is going to go into place.”
But that opinion is not shared by Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives.
“NRECA and thirty-nine generation and transmission cooperatives petitioned the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to reject the Clean Power Plan, because the final rule exceeds EPA’s authority,” Matheson said in a statement.
He emphasized that the final rule is “so different from the agency’s original proposal that it violates EPA’s legal obligation to provide adequate notice of, and opportunity for public comment on, the rulemaking, among other flaws.”
“When we asked the Supreme Court to stay the Clean Power Plan, the court took the extraordinary step of halting the rule in its tracks until the litigation played out. The justices’ decision was every bit as unprecedented as the Clean Power Plan itself and an indication of serious flaws in the rule. We’re confident we will prevail on the merits as well,” Matheson added.
Regardless, Deese is also confident that the momentum demonstrated by last week’s ratification of the Paris climate agreement and by global agreements on curbing aviation emissions and dealing with other tough issues like HFCs, will lead to continuing climate advances around the world.
In the U.S., Deese highlighted progress on limiting methane emissions. He said that “because squeezing additional reductions out of the power sector in particular is going to become increasingly difficult,” the next step will be “to implement pay-for-practice incentives so that negative emissions actually become one of many commodities that farmers and foresters can generate.” He expects increasing policy focus on reforesting and “using agricultural subsidies to actually incentivize efficient conservation practices and supporting innovative strategies like precision agriculture to support low-carbon bioenergy crops.”
On the need for improving resilience to climate challenges like droughts and hurricanes, he said, “We are going to need to move away from this idea that you pay for rebuilding after the disaster strikes and move toward rewarding resilience efforts before the storm gets there.” He noted that the U.S. is already dealing with the challenge of re-settling Louisiana’s and Alaska’s “climate refugees.”
Pointing to “only about 105 days left in Barack Obama’s term,” Deese concluded that despite achievements in the U.S. and globally to address climate change, “the problem is accelerating and the science is increasingly clear that the problem is getting worse faster than our efforts to address it.” He said the Obama administration has “put in place the frameworks necessary” but it will be up to the next administration to pursue “sustained policies over time.”
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