Obama 2.0: The Climate Rescue Plan

If Obama can use his presidential authority to slash handouts to oil and gas groups, and plow that money into clean power instead, the IEA's much hoped for energy revolution will take a huge step towards becoming a reality.
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Next month, Barack Obama is expected to unveil his widely anticipated climate rescue plan for stamping out that "dangerous carbon pollution that is threatening our planet."

Speaking earlier this month, top White House climate aide Heather Zichal said: "In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to hear more from the president on this issue. Our focus moving forward will be on executive actions."

The comments came a few days after Obama signed a landmark deal with China's Xi Jinping to rein in hydroflurocarbons.

Although relatively short lived, HFC's from refrigerators and air conditioners are a potent contributor to global warming. Commonly described as super greenhouse gases, they are a thousand times more destructive than carbon emissions.

The deal comes seven months after the World Bank warned that our planet may warm by as much as four degrees celsius within the next 50 years: "A four degree celsius world can and must be avoided."

The report came during the hottest US year on record, five weeks after superstorm Sandy whip-lashed across the northeastern seaboard to leave much of New York City submerged under water.

As the US and China are the world's largest economies and biggest carbon polluters, any effort to save our climate will depend on the commitment of these two powerhouses. Together, they account for 45 percen of all carbon emissions worldwide.

According to the International Energy Agency, both nations took enormous strides in reining in their emissions last year, setting the stage for a much sought after global green deal in 2015.

"Having the US and China produce encouraging data together gives me a glimmer of hope for the Paris meeting and beyond," says Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

The carbon footprint of the world's most populous nation fell as it burnt less coal and used more renewable energy. Beijing's new band of leaders are looking at new ways to stimulate the economy without sabotaging the environment.

In fact, China has already overtaken the US to become the leader in the clean energy race. It has also announced plans to reduce emissions further, and is rolling out several carbon trading schemes, with hopes to take it to the national level in two years time.

In the words of Anthony Hobley from the Climate Markets and Investment Association: "Let's not forget that the history of successful international agreements is based on countries formalizing what they are actually doing domestically."

According to strategists, Washington's new HFC deal with Beijing has spurred Obama to roll out his own broader climate strategy for America.

Last week, Zichal outlined four areas where the president has the authority to take independent action:

"Using the tools of the Clean Air Act to advance a broader climate agenda"; improved energy efficiency for homes and businesses; more investments by the government into clean energy research and production; and a phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies.

According to the IEA, the world urgently needs to embrace a clean energy revolution. It says that we have less than 5 years to act. After that, the climate will spiral out of control.

It has called on governments across the world to employ greater energy efficiency, curb emissions from power plants, reduce flaring from oil and gas production, and to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

If Obama can use his presidential authority to slash handouts to oil and gas groups, and plow that money into clean power instead, the IEA's much hoped for energy revolution will take a huge step towards becoming a reality.

Oil and gas companies received over $500 billion in government payouts in 2011.

Hints at Obama's second-term green agenda come four months after the president vowed to tackle the problem during his stirring State of the Union address.

But, any plan that Obama does have will not be enough to placate environmentalists if he decides to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Dubbed as the "fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet", the project hopes to transport "dirty" oil from the Canadian tar sands down to refineries in New Mexico.

Such oil releases far more carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuels because it requires huge amounts of energy to both extract and transport.

In fact, if we were to burn all of that oil, it would raise global temperatures by 0.4 degrees celsius. That marks half of the warming already experienced by our planet, taking us several steps closer to experiencing catastrophic climate change.

According to the US Joint Forces Command, the increased risk of "tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes" will usher in an era of global instability:

"In particular, where natural disasters collide with growing urban sprawl, widespread human misery could be the final straw that breaks the back of a weak state. If such a catastrophe occurs within the United States itself - particularly when the nation's economy is in a fragile state- the damage to US security could be considerable."

Some environmental leaders and big-time green donors say that if Obama approves the pipeline, any other action to help curb global warming will be automatically negated:

"It's like saying we're going to cut the left leg off and say you can have your right leg," says Larry Schweiger, President of the National Wildlife Federation.

But, others are less critical, arguing that "a broader climate agenda is far more important in the grand scheme of things," says Josh Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way: "Keystone is a battle but climate is the war."

Any plan that Obama does carry out will invariably be met with fierce political opposition, with the risk of it being overturned by the next government. Moreover, if such decisions negatively impact jobs in the fossil fuel industry, he may suffer a decline in ratings.

But, as US Representative Jan Schakowsky points out , "polling numbers aren't always in support of smart policy."

And, as former US president Harry Truman once said: "Men make history and not the other way around. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."

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