President Obama leaves office this week having compiled an outstanding, and largely under-appreciated environmental record. In the last month, he has run the table with actions, determinations, and reports that expand his legacy and create a record that will make it harder for the Trump Administration to undermine his accomplishments. Mr. Trump and his cabinet of cronies will do serious damage to be sure, but President Obama has unleashed a clean energy revolution that can not be reversed, as he himself argues in an unprecedented article in the Journal Science.
Let’s do the numbers
In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected President, the United States generated 55 billion kilowatt-hours (BkWh) of electricity from wind and 1986 BkWh from coal. In the 12 months from October 2015 through September 2016 (the most recent 12 month period with data currently available from the Energy Information Administration) wind generation was 220 BkWh and coal generation was 1208 BkWh, a remarkable four-fold increase for wind and 40 percent reduction for coal, our nation’s most polluting energy source. The jump in solar power is even more dramatic–a nearly 40-fold increase to 33 BkWh–albeit from a much smaller base.
These trends, combined with substantial energy productivity gains in lighting and appliances to cars and trucks, have enabled a nearly 12 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector since 2008 while the economy has grown by over 12 percent. A remarkable, and unprecedented achievement.
Equally important, the cost of clean energy has fallen over this period as technology deployment has scaled up: The cost of electricity from renewable sources dropped 41 percent for wind, 54 percent for rooftop solar and 64 percent for large-scale solar from 2008 to 2015, according to the Department of Energy. Similar price drops are now being seen in batteries for electric vehicles and stationary electricity storage as Tesla’s gigafactory begins production.
The importance of these cost reductions is hard to overstate. These trends mean:
- Renewables are now the cheapest source of new electricity generation in most parts of the United States, and
- The total cost of owning and operating electric cars over their lifetimes is generally lower than that of similarly-sized gasoline alternatives.
- In many cases getting electricity from new wind or solar farms is cheaper than just the operating costs of existing coal-fired power plants.
How did this happen?
In two words: policy matters.
While it is impossible to untangle the role of markets, entrepreneurial innovation, and policy; or U.S. federal policy versus state policies and policies in other key countries, such as China and Germany; it is clear that the Obama Administration led a virtuous cycle among all of these factors that propelled clean energy progress more rapidly than anticipated — even by people considered wild-eyed optimists eight years ago.
This started with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus bill), which was enacted less than one month into President Obama’s first term. The Recovery Act included an unprecedented $90 billion dollars in clean energy investments. While Republicans in Congress focused on a handful of companies that defaulted on loan guarantees, the portfolio as a whole actually had a 98 percent success rate and made money for taxpayers. And this program was only a small part of the Recovery Act’s clean energy investments. Overall, the Council of Economic Advisors estimates that those investments supported 900,000 job-years of employment while contributing to the clean energy boom and the myriad of cost-reducing innovations we have witnessed over the last eight years.
Other major early policy successes include motor vehicle and appliance efficiency standards. As President Obama puts it in Science:
My Administration has put in place (i) fuel economy standards that are net beneficial and are projected to cut more than 8 billion tons of carbon pollution over the lifetime of new vehicles sold between 2012 and 2029 (citation) and (ii) 44 appliance standards and new building codes that are projected to cut 2.4 billion tons of carbon pollution and save $550 billion for consumers by 2030 (citation).
Of course, not everything went according to plan. When President Obama was elected along with 60 Democrats in the Senate in 2008, there were high hopes for comprehensive climate and energy legislation that would, among other things, end the biggest fossil fuel subsidy of them all: the ability to dump unlimited quantities of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere for free. Some progressives were apparently so sure that climate legislation would pass that they focused on debating the relative merits of a carbon tax versus a cap-and-trade mechanism, or the details of auctioning versus allocating emission permits. But climate and energy policy has always involved regional as well as partisan divisions and the climate movement was simply not strong enough in 2009 to force any climate legislation through the filibuster-encumbered Senate. The failure of climate legislation led the the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Summit to meet elevated expectations for an agreement on binding emission reduction targets. By the end of 2009 some environmentalists were prepared to write off Obama’s presidency as a complete failure.
A New Hope
Fortunately, the story did not end there. When President Obama was reelected in 2012 he made a pledge to combat climate change a surprisingly prominent part of his victory speech. His Climate Action Plan followed in 2013 and he has been on a roll ever since. Rather than enacting new legislation, the Obama Administration has relied on laws already on the books, particularly the Clean Air Act, which the Supreme Court had already said covers climate-altering pollution.
EPA used a previously obscure section of the Clean Air Act to propose the Clean Power Plan in 2014. The Clean Power Plan would end the era of unlimited carbon pollution by requiring each state to develop and implement a plan for curbing emissions from what was then America’s largest source (due to declining reliance on coal-fired power plants emissions from transportation are now slightly larger than those from electricity generation).
On the strength of this proposal, President Obama persuaded Premier Xi Jinping of China that he was serious about tackling climate change, and the two largest emitters in the world each set overall emission targets and announced that they would work together to forge a universally-applicable agreement at the Paris Summit, scheduled for a year later.
While the Clean Power Plan was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court and President-elect Trump has pledged to dismantle it, the rule sets a long-term direction for the power sector which utility executives have said they will continue to follow regardless of short-term legal or political upheavals.
After promulgating the Clean Power Plan, rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, and securing the Paris Agreement, President Obama didn’t rest on his laurels. In the thirteen months since the Paris Conference the Obama administration has struck a deal with Congress to extend tax credits for wind and solar power, put a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land while a comprehensive environmental review of the program is conducted, set methane emission standards for new oil and gas wells, established a rule to protect streams from pollution due to coal mining, and issued a report detailing how the United States can reduce global warming pollution by 80 percent or more by mid-Century.
The Sprint to the Finish
In his final month in office, President Obama has run the table with five significant actions to protect his legacy, in so far as possible, from the administration of the incoming climate-denier-in-chief.
- Most significantly, President Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to put most of the U.S. Arctic permanently off limits to oil and gas drilling.
- EPA fixed its model rule for implementing the Clean Power Plan, issuing new draft guidance for states that wish to plow ahead and for any future administration that wants to implement reality-based policies.
- The Interior Department issued a plan for how it would conduct its environmental review of the federal coal program in light of climate change if it were allowed to continue to pursue rational policies to steward our public lands in the public interest.
- On January 12, EPA made a final determination that the clean car standards it had previously issued for the 2022 through 2025 models years are appropriate, achievable, and should be left in place. In fact, EPA concluded that the technical record shows that the car companies are ahead of schedule and if any changes were to be made the standards should be strengthened.
- On January 17, the State Department announced that the United States has contributed an additional $500 million to the Green Climate Fund, in accordance with our international responsibility and commitment to help developing countries cope with the consequences of climate change and transition to clean energy economies.
President Obama has made a compelling case that the clean energy momentum he has helped create is now irreversible. The problem, of course, is that coasting is not good enough. Following the hottest year ever recorded in 2016 this is the time when we need to be mashing down on the accelerator, not the brakes. President Trump needs to be held accountable against the standard of what science demands, not whether it could have been even worse.
Here are a few areas where President Obama laid the groundwork that the next administration should be building on:
- Curbing methane emissions and taking the natural gas off-ramp. Some of the carbon dioxide emission reductions achieved during the Obama Administration have been offset by increases in methane leaks as it pursued a natural gas bridge fuel strategy. Now we need to curb methane leaks from existing sources, in addition to new sources, and accelerate the transition to 100 percent clean energy–not appoint an oil industry executive as Secretary of State.
- Strengthening the Clean Power Plan to reflect the new economics of renewable energy. As important as it was when it was first proposed in 2014, the Clean Power Plan used very conservative assumptions about wind and solar and has since been overtaken by events. Now we need to strengthen and aggressively implement the Clean Power Plan–not appoint the leader of the litigation against the Clean Power Plan to run EPA.
- Set clean car standards that reflect the electric car revolution. EPA just confirmed that car companies can meet the standards through 2025 through efficiency improvements to conventional gasoline engines. Now we should be driving the transition to the electric vehicle fleet we need to meet our emission reduction targets and end our addiction to oil once and for all–rather than appoint a former Texas Governor who wanted to abolish the Department of Energy to be its leader.
- Make the moratorium on coal leases permanent. The Interior Department produced a great scoping plan for reviewing the federal coal program to see if any more leases are consistent with meeting our climate goals. Now we should complete the analysis and reach the obvious conclusion that leasing more federal land for coal mining is not in the public interest–not offer even more taxpayer-funded handouts to Big Coal.
The Trump Administration will do none of these things, as indicated by his cabinet picks.
For those of us who want our children to inherit a livable planet our goal must be to stop or slow the damage Mr. Trump has pledged to do. But that’s not enough. We must also keep pushing on the clean energy accelerated at the state and local level, in the private sector, and in other countries. If we succeed on all these fronts, with a little luck we might just be able to carry enough momentum through the next four years to avoid a climate catastrophe.