Josephine V. Yam

US is Global Leader in Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In his New York Times article, "A Model for Reducing Emissions", Eduardo Porter reports that the US has cut its CO2 emissions by almost 13 percent since 2007. The Americans have reduced their total energy use in the past 5 years by 5 percent. Surprisingly, this reduction is likely the most substantial GHG cut among developed countries and even more than what Europe has achieved.

The most compelling driver for the incredible decline in CO2 spewing is neither regulation nor increased citizenry initiatives to combat climate change. It is simply the interplay of market forces: low energy prices and technological innovation. In other words, the reasons are economic, not political.

Undeniably, the depressed economy has caused the lower production of goods and services, which in turn has decreased the Americans' use of energy. But a breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing of shale rocks has also produced massive amounts of cheap natural gas, which is significantly cleaner than coal. This in turn has caused electric utilities to switch from coal to natural gas, increasing the latter's overall proportion from 21 percent to 30 percent of total electricity produced from power plants.

Will these market forces continue to bring into fulfillment President Obama's goal of cutting CO2 emissions by 17 percent by 2020? Maybe. But until there is a carbon price that internalizes the escalating environmental damage and climate threat that carbon imposes on humanity, only then will there be a genuine driver that effectively dampens massive CO2 spewing.

Energy and Climate Change in Obama's To-Do List

In the New York Times article, “A To-Do List for the Next For Years”, Carol Browner proposes the need for President Barack Obama to finally execute on a climate change agenda. Ms. Browner was former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011 and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1993 to 2001.

“Energy and climate change, two issues that deeply divide the country, stand out as major pieces of unfinished business for the Obama administration,” she notes. Nevertheless, she points out that President Obama has unequivocally stated that “even for those who don’t believe climate change is real, the benefits of clean energy -- cleaner air, energy independence, American jobs and enhanced global competitiveness -- are just too important to ignore.”

How then can President Obama execute on a climate change agenda? By using his executive authority and by leverage existing energy laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the EPA’s authority to limit greenhouse gases that endanger public health. Browner recalls that during his first term as president, Obama used an energy bill signed by George W. Bush to reach an agreement on cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. Car manufacturers had business certainty, consumers saved money at the pump and the environment became cleaner. She notes that President Obama can use this existing authority to work with the electric utilities to reduce carbon pollution and secure greater energy efficiency while providing business certainty.

Ms. Browner also recommends that given the abundance of natural gas, the Obama administration must ensure that “fracking” is done in accordance with strong public health standards. Also, instead of 20 to 30 different state regulations that are imposed on fracking businesses, the Obama administration should just develop one set of national requirements based on the best available science and technology while leaving the oversight and enforcement up to the states.

Indeed, by executing on a strong climate change agenda in the next 4 years, President Obama can ensure that the U.S. moves steadily and unconditionally towards a sustainable, clean energy future.

U.S. Energy Boom: Miracle or Mirage?

In his New York Times op-ed article, “Is the Energy Boom a Mirage?”, Steve Yetiv remarked that while the U.S. is experiencing a boom in oil and natural gas production, the benefits of the boom may have been exaggerated. For instance, it will neither automatically produce lower oil prices nor bring greater energy security as expected.

Mr. Yetiv set out several reasons why optimism for boom must be tempered. One reason is the growing backlash against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which can pollute water systems. While emerging technologies are making fracking safer and less environmentally damaging, the costs involved are currently not financially justifiable.

“To be sure”, he observed, “the American boom has its positives…Use of America’s abundant natural gas can also offset reliance on dirtier coal.” But he cautioned that “a boom in fossil fuels is hardly something to celebrate, given the urgency of climate change.”

U.S. CO2 Emissions Lowest in 2 decades

A recent New York Times article reported that energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. from January-March 2012 were the lowest for the first quarter of the year since 1992. The CO2 emissions from energy consumption during this period of 2012 amounted to 1.34 billion metric tons, down by nearly 8% from a year earlier.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s report, CO2 emissions during the year are generally highest in the first quarter because of the strong demand for heat produced by fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. However, the EIA identified the confluence of three factors that contributed to this significant CO2 emissions decline:

The first factor is lower gas heating demand. This is mainly due to a mild winter when temperatures were markedly above the historical average for the season.

The second factor is reduced gasoline demand. This is mainly due to lower economic activity.

The third factor is a decline in coal-fired electricity generation. This is mainly due to utilities using less coal for electricity generation as they burned more low-priced natural gas.

The New York Times article noted that “[t]he extraction of large natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale has contributed to the rise of inexpensive natural gas, causing prices to decline in the last four years and making it a far cheaper option than burning coal. In 2005, coal accounted for half of all electricity generated in the country. But the embrace of natural gas, which now accounts for about 30 percent of electricity generation, has caused coal’s share to retreat to 34 percent, a 40-year low.”

However, according to the article, climate scientist Michael Mann warned that when shale gas is extracted from the ground, “fugitive methane”, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, can escape into the atmosphere. He noted: “We may be reducing our CO2 emissions, but it is possible that we’re actually increasing the greenhouse gas problem with methane emissions.”