Obama pushes hard for clean power as Abbott hits the brakes

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US president Barack Obama has released the final details of his ambitious Clean Power Plan, increasing his target for electricity sector emission cuts and renewable energy, just as his conservative counterparts in Australia hit the brakes on wind and solar.

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Obama’s long awaited Clean Power Plan is more ambitious than his previous versions. The emissions reduction target from the electricity sector is lifted to 32 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, from 30 per cent, and the national renewable energy goal is lifted to 28 per cent from 22 per cent. That is from around 13 per cent now, half of it from hydro.

“We are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change, and the last generation to be able to do something about it,” Obama said at the launch event, which was brought inside from the White House gardens due to the heat and humidity outside. “It’s not as if there’s nothing we can do about it. We can take action.”

Under the CPP, the US Environmental Protection Authority  will set interim targets for emissions intensity for each state, and final targets in 2030 for both emissions intensity and total emissions. It will be up to each state to develop its own plan for how to meet these targets, but it will likely result in mass closures of coal-fired generators.

The proposals elicited a predictable response from the Republican Party, where only one of the 17 presidential candidates appears to accept the science of climate change – and he is trailing with less than 1 per cent of the vote – and whose surprising front-runner Donald Trump is as fiercely opposed to wind energy as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, two other likely nominees, and Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – re-elected last year with a simple campaign slogan of “coal, guns, freedom” – have been damming, variously describing the proposals as “lawless”, a “triumph of blind ideology” and a “power grab.”

Cruz, like Abbott’s principal business advisor Maurice Newman, think climate change is a hoax to designed to exert “massive government control of the economy, the energy sector, and our lives.” House speaker John Boehner describes it as an “energy tax”, using the same language of the Australian conservative Coalition.

That huge divide between the left and right over climate policies and clean energy has now fully extended to Australia. Abbott has also declared he doesn’t like wind energy, and has said that 23.5 per cent renewable energy – the current target for 2020 – is more than enough, and he would like it cut further.

Last night, Coalition and cross bench members of a Senate inquiry into wind farms released a report that has recommended moves – including a five year limit on incentives – that will effectively cripple the industry in Australia. Labor dissented, describing the recommendations as “reckless, ridiculous and irresponsible”.

So, the veneer of bipartisanship has finally been removed in Australia, as it has in the US. In Australia, Labor has announced a 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030, and a new poll suggests it has support from 65 per cent of the electorate. The Coalition, meanwhile, has hitched its wagon to the Republicans and the fossil fuel lobby, repeating the mantra that coal is “good for humanity” and that any other choice will force up prices to consumers.

The Obama move is seen as a big positive for a good outcome at the Paris climate talks in November. The Climate Institute described the initiatives as “historic” but said the US would need to move even further if the world was to meet its stated target of limiting average global warming to 2C.

The TCI’s John Connor said if Australia was to meet its share of achieving that goal, then it should set a target of a 45 per cent cut below 2005 levels by 2025. Australia’s target is likely to be released next week, with the betting on a target of around 16 per cent.

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The Obama CPP allows for individual states to plan how they can meet their share of the national target, either through pollution controls on power plants, energy efficiency measures, renewable energy programs, emission trading schemes, or other measures.

Obama says the CPP will lower bills and other studies have come to similar conclusions. But he warned that critics would say the opposite.

“There will be cynics that say it cannot be done. Long before the details of this Clean Power Plan were even decided, the special interests and their allies in Congress were already mobilizing to oppose it with everything they’ve got,” Obama said.

“They will claim that this plan will cost you money—even though this plan, the analysis shows, will ultimately save the average American nearly $85 a year on their energy bills.”

Nicholas Stern pointed out that an International Monetary Fund report last week estimated that the failure by the US to take into account the full impacts of coal on human health and the environment represented a subsidy of more than $200 billion each year, or about 1 per cent of its GDP.

The EPA estimates that its proposal will These reductions will result in $25-45 billion in net climate and health benefits by 2030, according to the agency’s analysis.

Environmental groups want Australia to follow the US plan to impose emission limits on coal-fired generators, arguing that there is no other way to ensure that coal generators actually close. There is estimated to be up to 9GW of surplus coal fired generation in the market.

Environment Victoria said that by forcing the early retirement of heavily polluting coal-fired power stations, this paved the way for that output to be replaced by wind and solar power. The power stations that would be closed in the US are cleaner than Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations.

“There have been a number of coal power station closures across Australia in the past few years, as ageing generators become unprofitable. This process is inevitable, but there are two things we can do about it,” climate campaign manager Dr Nicholas Aberle said.

“Firstly, we can give industry certainty around closure timelines through mechanisms like emission standards that also ensure the dirtiest generators are retired first. Secondly, governments can start preparing now for these inevitable closures so communities are supported through the transition.”  

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  • Rob G

    We are already seeing Obama ramping up the climate policies, I suspect he will continue to fight this fight until his presidency ends. And when his time is done, he will become and advocate for climate action the world over – much like Al Gore.

    • mick

      watched him and david Attenborough having a general yarn on the idiot box,he constantly steered the conversation back to climate debate I think you may be right

      • Rob G

        Obama has already proven himself as a force to be reckoned with. Where Bill Clinton, (probably one of America’s most loved presidents) failed to get the US version of medicare in place, Obama succeeded.

    • Martin

      It’s just so late in the day. To make these comments on the way out of office, when it was his administration that stood by and watched as we slipped beyond the point of no return. I hope it’s not so…

      • Rob G

        Yes, I’m aware of how grim things are and how close we are getting to the point of no return. Last election I spoke to a scientist who said we have 10 years left to fix the problem. We need to be attacking this problem on all fronts. Aforrestation, artificial C02 removal and more obvious a complete end to fossil fuels. Both our election and the next US election will be the chance to turn history once and for all. If Hillary Clinton gets in, on a campaign based on climate action, then republicans will need to rethink their climate views. The same can be said here, if Labor and Greens win a big election then we will know we have the weight of the population behind this problem. In a strange way Abbott being in power has helped people to better understand the problem and the politics that comes with both sides. Abbott is losing this war!

      • Doug Cutler

        Cost of wind and solar are dramatically lower now than when Obama first came to office. He now has ammunition to fight this battle in a way he never could before.

  • George

    we don’t hear much from Abbott these days about not reducing carbon ‘until the rest of the word does’ He is being left behind, just as predicted.

    • Barri Mundee

      One possibly good thing is that the previous pretend of bipartisanship on the part of the COAlition has now been exposed. At least voters should now have a clear choice between the major parties.

  • Lowering emissions for the US is much easier than it is for Australia. 20% of US electricity comes from nuclear power. Enough to assist with balancing higher amounts of wind and solar without increasing carbon emissions. Without nuclear we are restricted in how far we can reduce emissions as we still need to use significant gas for balancing.

    • Barri Mundee

      That may be an issue of the future but we have a surplus of about 7GW of power so old brown coal stations like Hazelwood could close without problems.

      So I disagree that lowering emissions is much easier in the US.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Nuclear power plants do provide low emission electricity, but for load balancing they are not economically effective. This is because the cost of nuclear electricity is almost all capital, operating, and disposal costs; while the cost of nucler fuel is only a very small portion of the total cost. This means that they are even worse than coal plants when it comes to operating at below full capacity in a load following mode, ready to increase output as needed, because they save very little money when doing so. At least a black coal power station will forgo a few cents in fuel costs for each kilowatt-hour it doesn’t produce, but a nuclear plant forgos less than a cent. So with our lack of nuclear power, and our greater hydroelectric penetration, I would think we would have an advantage over the US in lowering emissions. For one thing, here a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity is likely to displace coal generation while it in the US it is more likely to displace gas. And we have some of, if not the, most CO2 intense brown coal power stations in the world and shutting the worst of them down would make a significant difference to our emissions.

    • nakedChimp

      nuclear can’t help balancing renewables.. how often does this need to be posted here?

      • Probably until you do your research into the load following capabilities of many nuclear power plants like the CANDU.

  • BsrKr11

    It is utterly frustrating to have a federal government so in the pocket of one group in society– this is setting Australia up to miss one of the biggest opportunities since the Industrial revolution for it does need planning and as Martin points out there are some technical issues that will need to be solved…. but Martin we don’t need Nuclear to solve these issues we need clear leadership politically and from our business sector…. both which are outrageously missing at the moment

  • Mark Roest

    Re “variously describing the proposals as “lawless”, a “triumph of blind ideology” and a “power grab.” ” — it’s called projection in psychology — externalizing their feelings and intentions onto others, as they support coal and other fossil fuel interests in trying to stop the world from stopping the destruction they cause.

  • john

    The very unfortunate thing is that by 2075 the science community will be charged with wilful neglect for not warning the various governments.
    Business will be at the forefront of trying to find a means of gaining monetary reward due to the negligence of the science community.
    In the short term lip service is being given to a problem that is very well understood and the effects are clear and ever more present.
    Self serving political efforts with no long term goals in mind are very detrimental to society the FF industry is a major business failure of care and due diligence.

    • Barri Mundee

      I am confident that the science community will not charged with wilful neglect as I think they have repeatedly warned governments that action is urgently needed. It will be the politicians and the FF industry that will deserve condemnation for failure to act and for standing in the way of effective action.

      • john

        You are correct however in the scheme of things that is how I feel it will pan out.
        Presently we are witness to a totally low level of dissimilation of science where sham outfits are setup and have the Gaul to publish misleading information and bare faced untruths that get a run in low level sham outfits who unfortunately have the majority of the public ear.

  • Marg1

    LNP= eco-terrorists

    • mick

      I would have called them soft shoe Nazis but eco terrs is just