Review: The Presidential Climate Action Project

The Presidential Climate Action Project is targeted at the next president of the United States, with a detailed list of steps to take to start to address our climate and energy problems more fully from the start of the next president's term. The project claims nonpartisanship and comes out of the University of Colorado, Denver. Former Democratic presidential candidate and Colorado senator Gary Hart is co-chair of the project. Read on for my review. 

The introductory section of the present draft seems mostly boilerplate on the issues, problem, and the potential economic benefits of acting sooner rather than later. There seems to be the usual mish-mash of figures and numbers in an almost non-sequitur fashion - for example:

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are the fastest-growing source of new electric power in the United States. PV power grew 60% between 2004-2005 and is expected to contribute 9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity by 2010, roughly the equivalent of nine large nuclear power plants. Wind power is the second fastest-growing source of new energy in the United States. More than 15 GW of new wind capacity was constructed in 2006, bringing the world total to nearly 60 GW. Renewable electricity represents only 6% of the nation’s electric supply today. With an aggressive push, renewable energy can provide 20% of our power by 2020 and create 350,000 new jobs.
9 GW of solar (in the US alone?) by 2010 sounds like peak capacity, not average production, so it would be producing more like the total from just 2 or 3 large nuclear power plants, not 9. At least with wind they talk about capacity, but what about capacity factor there? The 6% of electric supply from renewables now comes mostly from hydro. 350,000 new jobs is on the order of $35 billion/year in presumably added costs? Anyway, they seem to mean well... moving on...

This introductory section does include some specific recommendations that are quite substantial. The first is to "reform federal subsidies" - basically ensure that federal money is not going to activities that have a negative impact on energy security or climate. That may be a lot harder to do than it sounds, but it sounds like a good statement to make as a general guideline at least!

The second recommendation is to create a new "U.S. Innovation and Economic Development Administration (IEDA)" formed from the Small Business administration and parts of the DOE. This would be a major administrative transformation, but ought to have a significant impact in harnessing the entrepreneurial sector for energy innovation.

The third recommendation talks about "full cost accounting" - internalizing the externalities of fossil fuels, in essence. Isn't that what "cap and trade" or a carbon tax are for? This doesn't sound very workable, but maybe it can be handled at the federal agency/department level as the recommendation suggests, at least.

Recommendation 4 is on predicting the future - which energy sources can be expected to be the low-cost alternative, and which will never get much better? This would task the new IEDA with figuring it all out. Something along these lines makes sense for R&D (and demonstration) funding, but it seems to me deployment would be best governed by market forces (under carbon cap-and-trade or taxation schemes).

Recommendation 5 suggests replacing GDP with a "Genuine Progress Indicator" that includes environmental quality and other aspects missed in GDP assessments. Sounds like a useful idea. Recommendation 6 addresses the impact on those who are poor and ways to compensate for that.

The last two of these major generic recommendations (7 and 8) suggest sitting down with insurance and business leaders in planning partnerships, incentives, market-based schemes and the like to address the climate problem. Sounds good.

The real meat of the discussion starts in section 2: "National Climate Policy". The first recommendation is a rhetorical statement on declaring an "atmospheric commons". They recommend a stepped reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions starting with 2010 as reference - 3% of 2010 levels reduced per year through 2020 (so 2020 levels are 30% below 2010 levels), then 2% of 2010 levels per year through 2045 or 2050 (to get to 80-90% below 2010). This is more agressive than any of the climate bills currently before the US Senate or House. They also urge the new president to challenge the five largest emitting nations to commit to the same 2% decline from 2020 (so they would have until 2020 to continue growing to that point).

Recommendation 3 here is for a "cap and auction" system, enforced "upstream" - at ports, at refineries, at mines. If congress can't do this, they recommend asking the EPA to implement it anyway.

Before cap and auction starts up (or if it runs into trouble), they recommend the EPA be tasked with using its clean air act authority to start progress on reductions.

Recommendation 5 I really like: restore respect for science in federal policy, through several measures including increased authority for the science advisor and getting congress to restore the office of technology assessment.

Recommendations 6 and 7 basically raise awareness of climate issues by forcing federal agencies to account for their climate (co2-equivalent) impacts, and encouraging the public to do likewise, and presenting a formal plan to improve things. Finally in this section, recommendation 8 adds some federal oversight and setting standards for "climate offset" projects.

Section 3 is titled "Energy Policy", with similar recommendations. The first is to "recalibrate national energy policy" - setting goals for carbon neutral generation and efficiency improvements.

The second proposal is an interesting one I haven't seen elsewhere - establish a "floor" for the price of oil, say at $45/barrel. It's essentially a carbon tax that only applies if market forces push oil's price down too far; the tax would grow the lower the underlying price was, i.e. the lower demand relative to supply. The minimum price would ensure continuingly decreasing demand (one hopes), so it seems a pretty sure deal - a good idea.

Recommendation 3 is for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for the nation (and rec. 4 says to work with the states on it). The recommended levels are 20% of electricity from renewables by 2020, and annual 0.6% reductions in load through efficiency measures. Now this one I'm not so sure about - electrification of transportation, for instance, is on net a good thing if we can get it to work (reducing energy use in total, and reducing CO2 emissions). There's certainly a big push for plugin hybrids and perhaps even completely electric vehicles coming along now. So forcing utilities to lower electric demand would run counter to allowing good electrification - this part of the recommendation could be counterproductive.

The state part of this (recommendation 4) has some incentives for states to play along; one piece that could be very important is to update building codes; utility reform including net metering and feed-in tariffs would be great too.

Recommendation 5 focuses on agriculture and rural America: "helping farmers, ranchers and rural communities become the nation’s major source of clean energy for the 21st century economy". This sensibly focuses on wind and solar, it also includes sequestration (reforestation). But inevitably it also covers biofuels which are probably not going to be much long-term help.

Recommendation 6 is to work with industry on plans to reduce greenhouse emissions, and capture some of the more potent gases (like methane) rather than releasing them into the atmosphere.

Here's a surprise - recommendation 7 asks to eliminate the Department of Energy! This is in favor of a new "Innovation and Economic Development Administration" with other pieces composing an independent National Nuclear Security Administration and/or farmed out to different government departments and agencies. Having a lot of experience with the Department of Energy research labs I find this a little shocking; on the other hand there's a lot of dysfunction in the department that could hardly get worse under a major reorganization like this.

Section 4 discusses National Security. The recommendations here are primarily about oil, for pretty obvious reasons. We should reduce our consumption, and work with other nations on it - recomemndation 2 suggests forming an "Organization of Petroleum Importing Countries" (OPIC) to collaborate on oil demand reduction and assurance of supply in emergencies.

Section 5 returns to "Agriculture and Rural America". This seems to be mainly an expansion of Section 3, rec. 5 on energy policy - yes, rural America covers a lot of land area and so is important for renewables that are by nature regional or highly dispersed. The key interesting recommendation here is probably #6 - "manage the evolution of ethanol fuels".

Recommendation 6 suggests the USDA should take charge of managing the switch from grain ethanol to cellulosic - along with improving the efficiency of corn ethanol production itself. USDA programs could certainly use some reform, and overall the emphasis here seems to be on pilot programs and R&D rather than on massive subsidies, so it may be a very good thing. Nevertheless I'm a little skeptical of this one. The remaining recommendations, in addition to bio-energy funding, also emphasize the importance of better understanding the impact of climate change on agriculture.

Section 6 is titled "Low Carbon Buildings". The first recommendation is on encouraging efficiency in appliances and improved building codes, with a target of 20% efficiency improvement by 2020, and 50% by 2030. Recommendation 3 also targets appliance efficiency.

Recommendation 2 is interesting - it is basically John Dingell's proposal to limit the home mortgage interest deduction for large residential homes, with an exemption based on LEED certification. Getting a home LEED certified would qualify for a tax credit in itself. Looking at it in this form it seems like a good idea, but it may be hard to get through congress.

Recommendation 4 is an extension of something called EPACT 2005, the current US tax incentives for energy efficiency, hybrid cars, etc.

Recommendation 5 is on improving building codes for residential and commercial construction and could have a major impact. They propose a 50% reduction in operating energy consumption for houses starting in 2010 (all new buildings or major renovations), and increase that to 100% (carbon neutral buildings) by 2030.

Recommendation 6 (numbered 5 in the draft) is to increase the weatherization assistance program for low-income families. They propose a 10-fold increase in the program, to $1.4 billion/year.

Recommendation 7 is on "smart growth and smart grids". This sounds good, but seems to be just a research program in this iteration. Recommendation 8 proposes using federal home loan programs to increase green building construction - including a new "CNMA" for low- or zero-emission buildings. Since capital cost is key, incentives to make those capital investments will be a big help.

Section 7 is all about transportation. Recommenation 1 is to increase CAFE - to 50 mpg by 2030 and to 200 mpg by 2050. Also to decide whether or not to revive PNGV...

Recommendation 2 is for low-carbon fuels. Ethanol? Blah...

Recommendation 3 proposes to double public transportation funding - yeah! And to include a greenhouse-gas emissions performance standard for allocating surface transportation funds generally. This sounds pretty good. Recommendation 4 adds on to that by encouraging IRS changes to favor commuting over car travel. And 5 and 6 focus on similar incentives in community development, congestion pricing, and other ideas of that sort.

Recommendation 7 is for improving the efficiency of freight transportation, though it doesn't seem to go very far on that (anti-idling measures?). Recommendation 8 is to fund high-speed intercity rail as a low-emissions option.

And then the draft abruptly comes to an end.

All in all it seems a good collection of proposals, though not yet self-consistent (the duplication between section 5 and recommendation 5 of section 3, the various things tasked to DOE and then the recommendation to disband DOE, etc) and with a few pieces that may distract from the true goal of climate change mitigation (the emphasis on jobs and biofuels n particular). But the plan is aggressive on a number of fronts, and obviously a major step forward from anything the present administration is doing. Let's only hope the next president actually sees fit to give all these recommendations some serious thought.

Created: 2007-12-06 23:55:22 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2007-12-07 01:22:42 by Arthur Smith