Just as Obama ‘pivoted’ America’s geo-political policy towards Asia in 2011, Obama’s recent speech at Georgetown University finally laid out his long awaited plan to pivot away from fossil fuels, and towards clean renewables like solar and wind.
Obama’s main target here was coal, responsible for a whopping 40% of America’s carbon emissions, which is why the big news is Obama authorizing the EPA to regulate carbon from not just new coal plants, but existing ones. This reduction should keep America on track to meet the pledge Obama made in Copenhagen in 2009 that the U.S. would reduce its emissions by about 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.
Obama was just as emphatic about the need for congress to create a carbon tax and end the billions in tax breaks given to huge oil companies making record profits. Even President Obama’s positive mention of natural gas was still described as a ‘transition fuel’ to help us start immediately cutting back on coal.
But perhaps more than anything, he offered a full-throated endorsement of the ability of Americans and American businesses to find solutions to today’s energy and climate challenges. “The problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it’s a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity.”
For example, considering all the talk about cutthroat competition in solar manufacturing, it probably surprises most people to discover that First Solar, a American thin film solar manufacturer is booming. Or that solar comprised half of all new electric capacity added to the grid in the first quarter of this year. Or that American companies, Sunrun in particular, pioneered the highly successful solar leasing model that takes away the high upfront cost of buying and installing the panels. Instead the homeowner pays a lower rate for the electricity the panels produce, and it’s proving to be wildly popular with a 76% growth rate last year alone.
Among environmentalists, Obama’s plan was generally considered a little late, as he could have regulated coal plant emissions 4 years ago when the Supreme Court ruled carbon as a pollutant. But “better late than never” said The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, noting, “this is truly a big deal (that) could significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide Americans add to the atmosphere every year.” While Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club said “This is the change Americans have been waiting for on climate.”
Indeed, it was a hard to ignore the symbolism of the President delivering his long awaited climate speech while mopping his brow in the sweltering sun as a near record-setting heat wave spread across much of the country. His message to climate change deniers? “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society.”
“The question is not whether we need to act, the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late. Those who are feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it,” said the President. He went on to describe firefighters dying, homes and crops being battered by both floods and fire, and how ultimately climate change costs everyone via higher insurance premiums.
The President was also keen to point out how transitioning to a clean energy economy was a bipartisan issue: How 75% of all wind energy is installed in Republican districts; how thousands of mayors of all political stripes have signed agreements to cut carbon pollution; and how renewable energy creates local jobs that can’t be outsourced overseas.
Other notable points included accelerating permitting for utility-scale renewable energy projects on federal lands. A goal for commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings to become at least 20% more energy-efficient by 2020. A new goal that the federal government will consume 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. And the expansion of fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles to make them more fuel efficient.
Overall, the President’s speech was a good start to addressing climate change issues, particularly it’s focus on reducing emissions from coal plants, the main carbon burning culprit of all. And the President’s emphasis on ending the tax breaks for fossil fuels to support renewable initiatives certainly deserved the crowd’s applause, as did the gusto with which he defended how American innovation will continue to find solutions to help the economy and the planet.