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President Obama's plan to fix climate change is fatally flawed, experts say

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President Barack Obama gave a high-profile speech this afternoon at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to announce a massive new government plan designed to address climate change. But the plan, details of which were released by the White House on Tuesday morning ahead of the president's speech, won't do much to help fix the problems of pollution and global warming, and may actually make things worse overall, according to independent climate experts.

"It's amazing how little this all actually does."

"It's amazing how little this all actually does," said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. "In many ways, this makes things worse." Jacobson, who has spent years researching the link between air pollution and human health in the United States, points out that the White House's seemingly bold objective to curb carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 through efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings*, actually equates to cutting about one-fortieth of all pollution produced by the US energy sector each year. "The numbers are so trivial, it's almost like a gimmick," he said. Another part of the White House's plan, to increase the amount of renewable energy projects on federal lands enough to power 6 million homes by 2020, is "embarrassingly trivial," in a country of over 130 million housing units, said Jacobson.

Jacobson also takes specific issue with part of the president's plan that calls for the US Energy Department to provide $8 billion in loan guarantees to what the plan calls "advanced fossil energy projects." Jacobson and other experts say that this term refers to one idea in particular: installing new equipment to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and attempting to pump it back into underground storage areas, where it won't get into the atmosphere for many years. Such a technique could reduce between 85-90 percent of carbon emissions from coal plant smokestacks, according to estimates of companies pursuing it.

The idea sounds good in principle, but the science behind it remains largely unproven. "There's not even a single commercialized coal-with-carbon-capture plant" in the US, Jacobson pointed out. Indeed, several companies have abandoned attempts to build such plants in recent years after deciding the costs would be too high and incurring opposition from environmental groups. But several US carbon capture projects are still in development right now, including a Department of Energy-funded attempt to build one ethanol-powered carbon capture plant in Decatur, Illinois.

The science remains largely unproven

More problematically, Jacobson and other energy experts agree that such carbon capture systems would actually end up releasing many more emissions per plant than they do now, because the carbon capture systems themselves take considerably more energy to operate. "By some estimates, 40 percent of the energy generated has to go to the carbon capture and sequestration process," said Josh Galperin, associate director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Furthermore, the carbon capture and sequestration process doesn't eliminate several major sources of emissions from coal and fossil fuel plants, namely, the upstream production emissions — those released by mining and transporting coal to the plants.

"10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050."

The offer of $8 billion in loan guarantees also strikes Galperin and Jacobson as odd: the new White House plan also aims to cut some US subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. Citing figures from the International Energy Agency, the White House's climate change plan says that globally, the fossil fuel industry — which includes coal, oil, and gas production — receives $500 billion in subsidies each year. A "phase-out" of such subsidies, as the White House proposes, would lead to an estimated "10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below business as usual by 2050." The White House notes that President Obama has called for the elimination of some subsidies in his 2014 budget, but it's unclear from the documents released today when or how exactly the White House will go about cutting them.

Still, more disconcerting than the lack of specificity to experts is the fact that the White House advocates cutting money going to the fossil fuel industry on one hand, and yet is offering $8 billion in guarantees of new loans for said industry on the other hand. "[The president] is saying he's trying to cut subsidies to fossils, but then, he's giving them, in effect, another subsidy," Jacobson said.

"More than the entire wind and solar energy receives from the government each year."

To be clear, a loan guarantee is different than a direct subsidy or a tax credit. The government only has to pay if a company defaults on its loan. But the Obama administration has been criticized for handing out loan guarantees to energy projects before. In Obama's first term, the Energy Department offered loan guarantees for many renewable projects, including the ill-fated Solyndra solar plant, which went bankrupt in 2011 and became a target for conservatives critical of the government's attempt to spur development of renewable fuels more broadly. Offering loan guarantees to experimental projects like carbon capture or gasification of coal, which are pursued by the more mature, stable fossil fuel industry, may incur less blowback from conservatives. Jacobson would rather see that money and more go to the development of purely renewable fuel technologies. "That $8 billion is much more than the entire wind and solar energy receives from the government each year," he told The Verge. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office back that up.

Not all of the White House's new climate change plan is being faulted, though. Galperin, for his part, told The Verge he was encouraged by the White House's many new proposals for defenses against climate change. "We've been looking for years in the public sphere at how do you mitigate the problem of climate change," Galperin said. "But what we haven't done enough of, in my opinion, is figuring out how to deal with it and adapt society to it." The White House is looking to remove restrictions on how much money agencies can spend on such defenses, but the plan doesn't cite any specific restrictions targeted for elimination. The president will also create a special temporary task force made of state and local officials to give him and the federal government ideas on how they can better help local communities prepare for climate change's impacts.

"this is either climate change, or what climate change looks like."

The White House's plan specifically cites Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Northeast in October 2012 and caused substantial damage and some loss of life to many communities and the New York Metropolitan area, as an example of what the country should be preparing for going forward. "It's always perilous to point to a specific event like Sandy and say 'this is climate change,'" Galperin said. "But what people are saying is, this is either climate change, or what climate change looks like. It demonstrates exactly the kind of threats that climate scientists and meteorologists are warning us about."

*Updated to clarify that the 3 billion metric tons of carbon the President's aims to cut by 2030 would come entirely through efficiency standards for federal buildings and appliances. The plan also directs the Environmental Protection Agency to issue the first-ever standards for cutting emissions from power plants, but it remains to be seen how great those cuts will be.

The Verge
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