A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action Please, Mr. President

All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me (Elvis Presley)

So Obama did what few had expected, he devoted more space in his inaugural address to climate change than to any other issue and he didn’t beat around the bush:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. (Applause.) Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

But once bitten, twice shy. It bears remembering that he delivered great lines on climate change before. In his nomination victory speech in 2008, he declared that

“if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment (…) when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal (…)”

What followed was the White House bungling the debate about climate legislation.

The Guardian has provided a five-point checklist to see if this time around Obama is indeed serious about climate change:

  • Team: Who will he select to fill the various vacancies opening up in his administration?
  • Talk: The inauguration address was obviously a good start but will he continue to hammer away on the issue?
  • Use his powers: Given that legislation doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Obama will need to take the regulatory route, for example by introducing standards for old power plants, appliances and buildings. The New York Times discusses the policy options Obama has. And speaking of the Republicans, they are apparently not wasting time rolling out their guns.
  • Keystone XL: Will he reject the tar sands pipeline?
  • Arctic drilling: Will he close it down or at least impose strong standards?

Tar sands and Arctic drilling also feature prominently in a new report by Greenpeace based on analysis by Ecofys. The report identifies 14 “carbon bomb” projects that would single-handedly increase global emissions by 20% by 2020, an amount higher than the annual US emissions.

US media don’t seem to discuss the international dimension of climate policy very much, but the Guardian does, noting that an international agreement will be a necessary complement to US domestic action. And for such an agreement to have any chance of ratification by the US Senate, an agreement with China will be essential. “If the US president is to make saving the planet his legacy, he needs to beat a rapid path to President Xi’s door.”

Talking about China, it has just announced plans to add a massive 49 GW of renewables to its power mix this year, 21 GW hydro, 18 GW wind and 10 GW solar. Just 18 months ago the plan was to have 5 GW of solar in total by 2015, now it’s 40 GW.

So if one assumes that a China-US deal may somehow be possible, what about my home team, the EU? If they get sidelined again, as in Copenhagen, they will only have themselves to blame. UBS has just called EU emission allowances “worthless” without a change of rules to get rid off the supply glut. Agreeing EU positions before rather than during climate conference, as in Doha, would probably also help.

But there is also very positive news from this side of the pond, EU finance ministers agreed today that 11 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain) may move ahead of the others with a harmonised financial transaction tax (FTT). The European Commission now needs to make a legislative proposal. An FTT has long been debated as a promising source of fresh money for domestic and international climate finance. The German Institute for Economic Research has estimated that the tax could raise 37 billion Euros per year. The German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) last week tabled a proposal for a “Marshall Plan for Europe” to kickstart economic recovery and wean Europe off fossil fuels, part of which they propose to fund from the FTT.

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