by Jim Ball
As I put forward in the Introduction to this blog series, there are 7 Reasons Why the President must talk about climate change and not just clean energy. Last week I posted Reason 1, arguing that to avoid dangerous tipping points global emissions must peak during the next presidential term. Today's post is Reason 2.
We're going to need a clean energy revolution whose rate of change must be incredibly fast. A gradual transition won't cut it. This revolution will require strong and sustained Presidential leadership.
According to the respected business consulting firm McKinsey & Co., to overcome global warming will require a 10-fold increase in carbon productivity (or amount of output produced per unit of carbon). Has something like this ever been achieved? Yes. The Industrial Revolution achieved a 10-fold increase in labor productivity. However, our "carbon revolution" will have to occur in one third the time.
Here's where things currently stand. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released its annual forecast. (The EIA is an independent analytical agency of the federal government that tracks energy use and trends, including greenhouse gas emissions.) It projects that US carbon dioxide pollution will be 7% below the 2005 level in 2020, and will continue to stay below 2005 levels through 2035 even with a 25 percent rise in population. This results from increased fuel economy standards, appliance standards, federal clean air regulations, state policies requiring more renewable energy, and a rise in natural gas use, but doesn't yet include two other major policies that will reduce emissions further " the mercury regulation of power plants and the next round of fuel economy standards.
While we're moving in the right direction, this current EIA projection is less than half of the commitment we made at the 2009 international climate talks in Copenhagen (or 17 percent below 2005 levels). And the commitments made at Copenhagen are themselves not enough to overcome global warming.
So here's the deal: we're on the right path, but without comprehensive climate change legislation that includes a price on carbon we won't get there. The President's proposed Clean Energy Standard, focused on making electricity much cleaner and climate-friendly, is important but insufficient. A price on carbon is still needed to drive innovation throughout the economy. Such a price on carbon could be provided by market-based policies like a cap-and-trade system or a revenue-neutral carbon tax where those who do the right thing effectively get a tax cut. The resulting innovation will benefit not simply the U.S. The world needs us to make such investments and drive such innovation. As McKinsey & Co has shown, emissions from electricity generation and from industry represent less than half of the potential opportunities to overcome global warming worldwide. Other sectors like forestry and agriculture must also contribute (discussed further in Reason 4, forthcoming).
If emissions didn't need to peak by 2015-17, if the rate of change needed to overcome global warming was much slower, then we could get away with talking just about clean energy and proposing policies like a Clean Energy Standard. We could avoid talking about putting a price on carbon. And the President could avoid talking about making overcoming global warming a top priority.
But ignoring the rate of change needed or wishing it away won't make it disappear. It's a reality we must face.
Next Up: Natural Gas May Be "Fool's Gold"
The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is EEN's Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change and author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD.