Nothing would do more to ensure Americas security and stimulate more jobs than a national clean energy standard
Thomas L. Friedman
President Obama delivered his most important national security and jobs speech last week. I think he also mentioned something about climate change. The headline from Obamas speech was his decision to cut Americas carbon emissions by bypassing a dysfunctional Congress and directing the Environmental Protection Agency to implement cleaner air-quality standards. If the rules are enacted they will face many legal challenges it would hasten our switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation. Natural gas emits about half the global-warming carbon dioxide of coal,and it is in growing supply in our own country. As a result of market forces alone,coal has already fallen from about one-half to one-third of Americas electric power supply.
But I would not get caught up in the anti-carbon pollution details of the presidents speech. Id focus on the larger messages. The first is that we need to reorder our priorities and start talking about the things that are most consequential for our families,communities,nation and world. That starts with how were going to power the global economy at a time when the planet is on track to grow from seven billion to nine billion people in 40 years,and most of them will want to live like Americans,with American-style cars,homes and consumption patterns. If we dont find a cleaner way to grow,were going to smoke up,choke up and burn up this planet so much faster than anyone predicts.
In reducing coals historic dominance,the president is formalising a market trend that was already taking shape, remarked Andy Karsner,who was an assistant secretary of energy in the last Bush administration. His bigger message,though,was no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum,its useful for the nation to discuss,debate and consider a strategy for climate change. The consequences of inaction are potentially greater than all the other noise out there.
Sadly,many Republican leaders rejected Obamas initiative,claiming it would cost jobs. Really? Marvin Odum,the president of the Shell Oil Company,told me in an interview that phasing out coal for cleaner natural gas and shifting more transport,such as big trucks and ships,to natural gas instead of diesel is a no-brainer,no-lose,net-win that you cant fight with a straight face. But,remember,natural gas is a fine gift to our country if,and only if,we extract it in a way that does not leak methane into the atmosphere (methane being worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming) and if,and only if,we extract it in ways that dont despoil land,air or water.
But there is one more huge caveat: We also have to ensure that cheap natural gas displaces coal but doesnt also displace energy efficiency and renewables,like solar or wind,so that natural gas becomes a bridge to a clean energy future,not a ditch. It would be ideal to do this through legislation and not EPA fiat,but Republicans have blocked that route,which is pathetic,because the best way to do it is with a Republican idea from the last Bush administration: a national clean energy standard for electricity generation an idea the GOP only began to oppose when Obama said he favoured it.
Such a standard would say to every utility: Your power plants can use any fuel and technology you want to generate electricity as long as the total amount of air pollutants and greenhouse gases they emit (in both fuel handling and its electricity conversion) meet steadily increasing standards for cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gases. If you want to meet that standard with natural gas,sequestered coal,biomass,hydro,solar,wind or nuclear,be our guest. Let the most cost-effective clean technology win.
By raising the standard a small amount every year,wed ensure continuous innovation in clean power technologies and jobs that are a lot better than coal mining. You cant make an appliance,power plant,factory or vehicle cleaner without making it smarter with smarter materials,smarter software or smarter designs. Nothing would do more to ensure Americas national security,stimulate more good jobs and global exports the whole world needs these technologies than a national clean energy standard. And,of course,the climate would hugely benefit.
Improving our energy system plays to our innovation strength. Clinging to our fossil-fuel past plays to the strengths of Russia and Iran. Why would we do that? Why would the GOP? Its already losing young voters. Question: How many college campuses today have environmental clubs,and how many have coal clubs?
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