G20 Turkey Communiqué a major missed opportunity to change the game on climate

Turkey: 16 November, 2015: Turkish civil society and climate groups from across Turkey and the world have responded to today’s G20 Leaders Communiqué with a mix of shock and disappointment.

“Coming right before the Paris Climate Summit, the G20 was an opportunity for Heads of State from a range of countries to show their commitment to scaling up climate action both inside and outside of the UN,” Cem İskender Aydin, from İklim Ağı (Climate Network) said.

“Heads of State could have provided a clear and powerful signal ahead of the Climate Summit by putting a date for the end of fossil fuel subsidies, and agreeing to stop funding fossil fuel projects around the world,” Ümit Şahin from İklim için (For The Climate) said.

“Instead they have rehashed worn positions and in doing so risk being on the wrong side of history,” he said.

By not using the G20 to get onto the same page about the critical issues to be discussed at COP21, they’ve made their job that much harder.

“A broad and diverse range of civil society, non-profits and advocacy groups from across Turkey and the wider international climate and development movement all worked co-operatively to develop a set of four clear asks for G20 Leaders to meaningfully address the great climate challenge facing us,” Barış Karapınar, General Manager of TEMA Foundation said.

They were:

  1. A complete and total end to ALL fossil fuel subsidies.
  2. Stop our financial risk from climate impacts and action; demanding the G20 set a clear plan by 2018 to stress test all spending against its compatibility with global climate commitments.
  3. An immediate end to all investment plans for the expansion of existing and all new coal fired powered plants and mines in Turkey.
  4. G20 leaders to unequivocally state their support for a long-term goal and ambition mechanism in Paris.

“We have been deeply affected by the dreadful events that have taken place in Paris and Beirut and stand in solidarity with the victims and the people caught up in the violence. These events have pushed the G20 agenda towards a strong and necessary focus on security.

“As people who live in Turkey we are no strangers to such dreadful and senseless violence. Climate change will only increase conflict, increase violence and play a role in even greater geopolitical conflicts and mass migration of desperate refugees,” Efe Baysal from Yuva Association said.

Groups as diverse as The Pentagon, the US Department of Defence, The Atlantic Council, NATO, the Global Military Advisory Council On Climate Change (GMACC), the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and the Australian Defence Force have all concluded that climate change is one of the most serious security threats to the globe and that serious and immediate action is required.

A number of states (from the USA to Germany, Australia and the UK) have now included climate change in national security statements or strategies.

The G20 Leaders have failed to grasp this most basic of facts that the science illustrates so compellingly.

“The G20 Leaders have failed to grasp this most basic of facts that the science illustrates so compellingly. Many people around the world had seen the G20 as the perfect moment for Heads of State (HoS) to gather ahead of the COP, push the agenda on climate harder and make the work needed in Paris a fortnight later for COP21 just that little bit easier,” Christian Eicheinmuller Turkey Representative of Heinrich Boll Stiftung said.

“They have to do that. Some of our demands are incredibly simple to meet, indeed the C20 have nominated over the last few days 2020 as the year to phase out the perverse incentives of fossil fuel subsidies – all these G20 Leaders need to do is agree that this year must be the last moment for real action for the decision made way back in 2009 in Pittsburgh to be actioned!” Christian Eicheinmuller said.

G20 members are currently spending 789 times more on fossil fuel subsidies than they are on the Green Climate Fund, and yet they say in the communiqué how critical this Fund is and climate finance is – this is patently obscene,” Ethemcan Turhan from Ecology Collective said.

“The threat of new and expanding coal plants and mines in Turkey remains unattended to. This is deeply shameful, people are sick and dying from filthy coal and plans are afoot for international finance to build even more – this is a global problem of major significance,” Cem İskender Aydın from TEMA Foundation said.

“On long term goals and ambition we can see some reference on ambition but no foresight about plans to decarbonise our economies, as we know we must,” Ümit Şahin from İklim İçin (For the Climate Campaign) said.

We must hope that these Leaders display the leadership in Paris that we failed to glimpse here in Turkey on all matters to do with climate change, the most pressing of our global problems. The world is depending on it and the world is most certainly watching,” Ümit Şahin said. 

www.G20climate.com

 

G20 Leaders Communique: https://g20.org/g20-leaders-commenced-the-antalya-summit/

 

Michelle Grattan, The Conversation: Abbott says Australia’s climate target is ‘economically responsible’

Australia will take a target of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 to the Paris climate conference, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott leaving the way open to attend the meeting if a significant number of world leaders are there.

Abbott said the 26% reduction was “a definite commitment” but the government believed that under its policies and the expected circumstances it could reach 28%. He insisted the target range was “in the middle of comparable economies”.

“It is not quite as high as the Europeans at 34% on 2005. It is better than the Japanese at 25%. It is vastly better than the Koreans at 4%. It’s immeasurably better than the Chinese, who will actually increase their emissions by 150% between now and 2030.”

Abbott said it was a “good, solid economically responsible, environmentally responsible target”.

Under the plan, emissions per person would halve over the next 15 years.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Australia, responsible for 1.3% of the world’s emissions and the 13th largest emitter in absolute terms, “is doing our bit”.

Abbott said modelling showed the economic cost of a 26% reduction would be between 0.2% and 0.3% of GDP in the year 2030 – between A$3 billion and A$4 billion in current terms. If the reduction had been set at 40%, the cost would be more than 2% of GDP – about $40 billion. The costs imposed by the government’s target were “manageable” – in contrast, Labor would hit the economy with “massive and unmanageable costs”, he said.

During a long discussion in the Coalition partyroom, where MPs were briefed on the targets, climate sceptics they could live with the policy. One said he understood the political imperative of going down this road, even though it would not make a tittle of difference. According to a party spokesman, the reaction at the meeting was overwhelmingly positive.

Abbott said Bishop would lead Australia’s delegation to Paris, on the assumption that it was a foreign ministers’ meeting. But if it were to become a leaders’ meeting he would “gladly” go. “If there were a substantial number of major economy leaders there, obviously I’d go. It would be foolish not to go if there was an opportunity to meet on a whole range of subjects with the leaders of other economically significant countries.”

The reaction to the targets was predictably mixed.

Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler said the 26% target put Australia “well at the back of the pack”.

The Climate Institute said it was bad for the climate and bad for Australia’s international competitiveness. Australia would still be the highest per capita polluter among developed countries in 2030.

But Australian Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes said: “This new target is a step in the right direction. The science tells us that on a global scale we need to move towards zero carbon emissions by mid-century to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change. So while some will argue that the Australian target could have been more ambitious, it does start us on the path towards this longer term goal.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the government’s position balanced “the need for action to contain emissions with the need to minimise damage to jobs and economic growth”.

The Minerals Council described the target as “credible and appropriate” but said the policy would “impose strains on the Australian economy, especially export and import-competing industries”.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said the government had set targets that were less than half what the government’s independent Climate Change Authority had recommended. The authority urged a 40-60% reduction on 2000 levels by 2030.This would be a 45-65% cut from 2005 levels.

In a question to Abbott in parliament, Bandt said: “Haven’t you chosen to appease the deniers instead of satisfying the science?”

Frank Jotzo, The Conversation: Australia’s 2030 climate target puts us in the race, but at the back

Australia’s new emissions target is not “squarely in the middle of comparable economies” as the PM claimed. Towards the bottom of the pack of comparable countries, on key indicators. But Australia is coming to the party, and that counts for a lot.

It means the target is not obstructing international progress. And it will put the spotlight back on the opportunities for a lower carbon economy, and the policy instruments to get there.

Australia’s emissions target is a 26-28% reduction at 2030 in national emissions compared to 2005 levels. It can be viewed through different prisms and compared across different metrics.

Ratchet up later?

Fundamentals first. Australia’s 2030 target is not compatible with the internationally agreed 2C goal. It falls far short of what would be a commensurate Australian contribution to such an outcome. The Climate Change Authority in its Targets and Progress Review showed a 40-60% reduction at 2030 (relative to 2000 levels) as compatible with a 2C emissions budget.

Modelling done for our Deep Decarbonisation Pathways study, again for a 2C compatible scenario, showed Australia’s emissions cut in half at 2030.

That said, most other developed countries’ targets also fall short of the 2C mark, though generally by less than Australia’s target. The take-home message is that ambition will need to be ratcheted up in the years after the Paris climate conference.

And there is every reason to believe that this is possible. Time and time again, the experience has been that emissions reductions come cheaper than expected. Many emissions savings technologies have developed more rapidly and became cheaper more quickly than expected – just think of solar panels and LED lights.

Most existing emissions trading schemes achieve their targets at prices that are lower than was expected. Some have already lifted ambition in return.

We know that Australia can make the transition to a low carbon economy, by replacing coal in the power system with renewables (and in part nuclear if you wish, or carbon capture and storage if it works), harvesting the potential for energy efficiency across the economy, and modernising industries.

But how to get even a 26-28% reduction?

Australia currently has no credible plan for how the target could be achieved. The Renewable Energy Target has been slashed, and the Emissions Reductions Fund (ERF) in its present form will only have a marginal effect, at a big cost to the taxpayer.

It is far-fetched for the ERF subsidy mechanism to achieve significant absolute emissions reductions, and the discussion of new policy in Australia’s official statement is vague.

And so there is a risk Australia’s latest pledge will be seen as an empty promise because there is precious little to back it up.

This is by contrast to a whole suite of policies in train in China, Obama’s power plan and the EU which has the emissions trading scheme to assure that its target will be met.

To achieve reductions in domestic emissions will require significant and sustained policy effort. For reductions to be achieved cost-effectively, a consistent, broad-based policy effort is needed. And crucially, investors need to regain trust after many years of bruising political fights over climate change and the resulting policy uncertainty.

Then there is always the option of buying international emissions permits or credits, which could be part of a cost-effective solution or a cheap cop-out, depending on the rules and depending on your point of view. At the end of the day though, we need to get a transition underway domestically, and that means domestic action.

Pack position

But back to the first question: where are we in the pack, on the way to Paris?

Australia’s target for reduction in absolute emissions is significantly weaker than that of the United States and the EU, a little weaker than Canada’s, and a little stronger than Japan’s.

The choice of 2005 as a base year results in a larger percentage reduction number than if the year 2000 or (say) 2012 was used. That is because 2005 was near the high-water mark for Australia’s emissions.

A key feature of the target is that the annual rate of emissions reductions to meet the target steps up during the 2020s, to 1.9% per year. This is slightly higher than the other countries in the comparison, except the US which are targeting a reduction of 2.8% per year during the first half of the 2020s.

In per capita terms, Australia’s target implies a halving of per capita emissions over a 25-year timespan, a similar reduction rate as expected in the US and Canada, and a much faster reduction than in the EU and Japan where populations are stable.

But Australia does of course have a long way to come down, from its position of highest emissions levels per capita among all major countries. And per capita emissions would remain higher than the other countries looked at here, assuming population growth continues at the rates observed over the last decade.

A full comparative analysis would include modelling of the economic effects of Australia’s emissions target and different ways of meeting it, in comparison to other countries targets. To date such modelling is not available – and it is a fair assumption that global views of Australia’s target will be formed without reference to any economic modelling.

Expectations and perceptions

The coming weeks and months will tell, but my expectation is that internationally, Australia’s target is likely to be perceived as falling short in its ambition relative to Australia’s opportunities to cut emissions. But at the same time it will not be seen as falling catastrophically short, nor as an active obstruction of the international process.

Indeed, given the widespread perception that the Australian government looks out for the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of all else, the target announcement could be seen as step towards meaningful engagement on climate change.

In the eyes of the world we might just have reclaimed our traditional position as laggard in international climate change efforts, moving up a rung or two from presumed recalcitrant. There’s still quite a way to go on that ladder.

A numerical comparison of targets is available here.

David G. Taylor, Politifact: No cap-and-trade, no revenue

The possibility of passing cap-and-trade legislation ended for the foreseeable future when the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterm election.
The term ‘cap-and-trade” refers to emissions-reduction scheme wherein  the federal government caps the amount of carbon a company may emit. Each company is allotted a number of permits that allows it to emit a specific amount carbon. The individual company must buy additional permits from the federal government, or unused permits from other companies, to go over this cap. Ideally carbon emissions will decline because the free market rewards those who lower their emissions most effectively.

Republicans said cap-and-trade would hurt the economy and destroy jobs, and the opposed the additional costs it would put on the energy industry. So it”s unlikely any sort of cap-and-trade legislation will make its way to the President Obama”s desk in the current Congress. For these reasons we rated Obama”s promise to pass cap-and-trade as Broken and the GOP”s pledge to oppose cap-and-trade as Promise Kept.

In the previous update, we rated this promise Compromise since there existed some hope that funding measures would be included in a renewable energy bill that did not contain a cap-and-trade provision. Yet no bill of this sort has come to pass.

Since the federal government never implemented a nationwide cap-and-trade initiative, there is naturally no revenue that can be garnered from it. As a result, this promise — to use the funds collected from the auctioning of cap-and-trade permits for environmental and clean energy initiatives — cannot be fulfilled. Due to the failure of of Congress to pass cap-and-trade we rule this promise as Broken.

Sources:

Library of Congress – American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009

The Christian Science Monitor, “Harry Reid: Senate will abandon cap-and-trade energy reform,” July 22, 2010.

Angie Drobnic Holan, Politifact: Obama abandons cap and trade as Republicans take over the House

The last time we checked in on cap and trade, its prospects didn’t look good. The legislation had passed in the House in 2009, but had not been taken up in the Senate. And last week, President Barack Obama himself acknowledged the proposal was doomed.
What is cap and trade? The idea is that the government sets a limit (the cap) on how much carbon different companies can emit. The government then issues permits to companies — typically electric utilities and manufacturers –and allows them to buy and sell the permits as needed (the trade). If the policy works as planned, overall emissions decline, companies determine for themselves the best way to lower emissions, and the free market rewards those who lower emissions most effectively.

Republicans, however, attacked the plan as a job-killing energy tax, a description that is not entirely accurate. The plan never made it to a vote in the Senate.

Last week, Republicans won elections across the country, increasing their presence in the Senate and winning the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. At a press conference the next day, Obama acknowledged a changed political landscape while holding out hope for other issues.

“I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year,” he said. “And so it’s doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t agreement that we should have a better energy policy.  And so let’s find those areas where we can agree.”

“Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way,” he said later. “It was a means, not an end.  And I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

Obama may make headway on some of his other promises on energy and theenvironment, but it’s clear he’s giving up on this one because it can’t make it through Congress. We rate it Promise Broken.

Sources:

The White House, Press Conference by the President, Nov. 3, 2010

The Washington Post, Elections alter climate and energy landscape, Nov. 4, 2010

Louis Jacobson, Politifact: Cap-and-trade bill died, though other trends may achieve goal without a law

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to “create a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that will require 25 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2025.”
As we previously noted, in June 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives, then controlled by the Democrats, narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill. The legislation required that 20 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2020 — a standard similar to what Obama had promised. However, neither this bill nor any other bills were brought to a vote on the Senate floor, and all expired at the end of the 111th Congress.

Obama did reiterate the goal in his 2011 State of the Union address, saying that by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. “Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas,” he said. “To meet this goal, we will need them all.”

But with the advent of the 112th Congress, Republicans took control of the House with a focus on deregulation and an opposition to cap-and-trade programs. Any cap-and-trade bill was dead on arrival in the chamber that had approved it in 2009. And no one expects passage of a cap-and-trade bill in the post-election, or “lame duck,” Congress.

We’ll add one slight nuance, however. While Obama has failed to pass legislation to mandate that 25 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2025, it’s a lot more plausible now than it was in 2008 that the nation could approach that goal without a legislative mandate.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the federal government’s office for energy statistics, non-hydropower renewable energy is poised to increase from 2 percent of total generation to 6.7 percent between 2010 and 2025, while hydropower — a more traditional form of renewable energy than solar or wind — is set to increase from 10 percent to 14 percent over the same period. That would bring renewable sources to 21 percent by 2025.

It’s possible to “distinguish between a policy failure — an inability to enact a national renewable portfolio standard — and an empirical target, which can have a momentum of its own,” said Joel Darmstadter, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an energy and environment think tank.

Another factor that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time Obama made the promise was rapid growth in the domestic production of natural gas. Despite environmental concerns about the extraction process known as “fracking,” natural gas is a relatively clean-burning source of electric generation and has taken some of the pressure off the need to turn to new-generation renewable energy sources.

“Low-priced natural gas has blunted the momentum toward the use of renewable energy in the electric-power sector,” said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “When low-priced natural gas displaces coal, it offsets carbon dioxide emissions. Low-priced natural gas is a game-changing phenomenon that was not expected in 2008.”

Still, both the expected growth in renewable energy and the expansion of domestic natural gas production are ultimately side issues when judging Obama’s progress on his promise. He said he would enact a law to “require 25 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2025,” and he has not done so during his first term. So we’re calling it a Promise Broken.

Sources:

Energy Information Administration, “Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” June 25, 2012

Email interview with Joel Darmstadter, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, Oct. 25, 2012

Email interview with Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Oct. 25, 2012

J.B. Wogan, Politifact: No national standard in sight

As a candidate, Barack Obama envisioned his administration passing a national low-carbon standard. The proposal would have required transportation fuel producers and importers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from their fuels.

Nearly four years later, the standard does not exist.

In general terms, the proposal would require companies to meet a performance target for the amount of carbon dioxide released during the life of a fuel, from the oil fields to your car’s gas tank.

Proponents use the phrase “carbon intensity” as shorthand for the rate of carbon dioxide released per unit of energy. It pertains to more than the fuel itself — it also refers to carbon dioxide released in the process of producing and importing the fuel. So, technically, even a carbon-less energy source — electricity as an example — could have some carbon intensity associated with its production at the power plant.

A target would give companies the latitude to buy credits from companies that specialize in low-carbon biofuels. Companies could also lower their average carbon intensity by increasing the production of other kinds of fuel, such as hydrogen or natural gas.

Obama included the low-carbon standard as one of many ideas to wean the country off foreign oil, promote alternative energy and address climate change concerns.

Joseph Mendelson, policy director for climate and energy at the National Wildlife Federation, said the proposal is rooted in pragmatism: Even if markets for alternatives, such as biofuel or electric, continue to grow, conventional gasoline and diesel are likely to be part of our energy future.

“If you still have fuels around, you want them to be the least carbon polluting fuels possible,” Mendelson said.

California and Oregon are the only states to have a low-carbon fuel standard, though most states in the Midwest and Northeast regions have studied the option in the last few years. (You can see a map here showing U.S. states and European countries that have a carbon standard, or are considering it.)

In his campaign promise, Obama said the standard would require fuel companies to reduce their carbon intensity 5 percent by 2015 and 10 percent by 2020.

In 2009, the U.S.House of Representatives, then controlled by Democrats, worked on major climate change legislation that included a national low-carbon fuel standard. But oil companies opposed it, and the final version passed the House without such a standard.

The Senate and House also considered individual bills on establishing a national low-carbon fuel standard in 2009, but both died in committee.

“It failed in large part because no one knew what it was or what it meant,” said Dr. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Two foundations, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Energy Foundation, have given grants to Sperling and other academics to research the proposal, giving special attention to its potential benefits and costs. Their findings, published in July 2012, are available on the group’s website, the National Low Carbon Fuel Standard Project.

The White House Office of Science and Technology still mentions a low-carbon fuel standard as part of its environment and energy Website; the standard would be part of the White House plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. But we couldn’t find any sign of the administration actively pushing the idea since the climate bill stalled in 2009.

We contacted the White House for any evidence that Obama advocated for the a low-carbon fuel standard, but never heard back.

Some groups say it’s not Obama’s fault that Congress won’t pass legislation.

“(Obama) can’t be held at fault for a dysfunctional Congress,” said Heather Taylor, the director of a political arm for the pro-environmental reform group, the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He’s shown if he could do something, he would.”

One of the principles of our Obameter, though, is we rate promises for outcomes, not intentions. So with no low-carbon standard on the horizon, we rate this a Promise Broken.

Sources:

Interview with Professor Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis and the co-director of the National Low Carbon Standard Project, July 31, 2012

Interview with Joseph Mendelson, policy director for climate and energy at the National Wildlife Federation, July 31, 2012

Interview with Heather Taylor, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, Aug. 1, 2012

Interview with Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, Aug. 1, 2012

BarackObama.com, Barack Obama and Joe Biden: New energy for America, Establish a low carbon fuel standard

White House Office of Science and Technology, Environment and Energy

University of California, Davis, Researchers outline national low carbon fuel standard, July 30, 2012

Government Printing Office, Senate statements on introduced bills and joint resolutions, S5704-S5706, May 20, 2009

S.1095, America’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard Act of 2009, May 20, 2009

H.R.1787, Low Carbon Fuel Standard Act of 2009, March 30, 2009

Globe and Mail, Oil sands to take hit from U.S. bill, June 29, 2009

Government Printing Office, Hearing to Review Low Carbon Fuel Standard Proposals, May 21, 2009

New York Times, Obama admin portrays House climate bill as economic boon, April 22, 2009

Catharine Richert, Politifact: New initiatives are meant to reduce oil consumption

President Barack Obama made some big campaign promises about energy consumption, and this was one of them.
Specifically, he pledged to reduce oil consumption by 35 percent in 2030.

So far, it’s hard to quantify exactly how many barrels of oil Obama’s nascent energy efficiency initiatives, alternative fuel programs and fuel efficiency standards have offset, but it’s clear he has gotten the ball rolling on this promise.

Here are just a few examples:

– G-20 leaders have agreed to Obama’s plan to phase out $300 billion in fossil fuel subsidies, including tax breaks and government assistance for coal and oil. The administration contends most of those subsidies go to foreign oil producers, so sending that money overseas impedes investment in energy sources, particularly renewable fuels, at home.

– On May 26, 2009, the administration announced it was increasing the Renewable Fuel Standard, an existing mandate that requires gasoline to be blended with ethanol or diesel with biodiesel, from 9 billion gallons of blended fuel to 36 billion gallons in by 2022.

– The stimulus package was chock-full of incentives for renewable energy production, including $2.5 billion for “applied research, development, demonstration and deployment activities” that alternative energy companies will be able to tap into.

– A cap-and-trade bill would require that new buildings be 30 percent more energy efficient in 2012 and 50 percent more efficient in 2016. Those standards will increase 5 percent every three years. That means that by 2030, new buildings will be 75 percent more efficient than they are today.

– The Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are in the process of drafting new rules that would increase fuel efficiency by an average of 5 percent a year. By 2016, cars and trucks will be 40 percent more efficient than today’s vehicles, according to Obama’s proposal .

Does this all add up to a 35 percent reduction in oil consumption? Not yet, but Obama is taking steps to fulfill this promise. For now, we rate it In the Works.

Sources:

Environmental Protection Agency, Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS2): Notice of Proposed Rulemaking , accessed Oct. 11, 2009

Public Radio International, Fossil fuel subsidies and climate change , Sept. 28, 2009

Joshua Gillin, Politifact: Obama claims U.S. has doubled production of ‘clean energy’

America’s recovery from the Great Recession is slow but steady, President Barack Obama said in a recent speech, and the country is headed in the right direction, thanks in part to his energy initiatives.

He told students at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 9, 2015, the United States is now the world’s No. 1 producer in oil and gas — a statement we’ve researched in the past and rated True — and touted a move to more renewable resources.

“We’ve doubled the production of clean energy,” Obama told the crowd.

There was no time frame given or any indication of what he considered clean energy, but PolitiFact wondered whether that was true. And if it was, could he take credit for it?

Generating interest

The White House specified Obama was referring to solar, wind and geothermal (harnessing power from heat generated under the Earth’s crust), but omitted any specific time frame. We can go ahead and assume they mean since the beginning of Obama’s first term, but the definition of renewables needs some explaining.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration considers renewable energy as coming from any source that is “naturally replenishing but flow-limited,” meaning there are limits on how much energy can be derived from the source at once.

This also includes biomass fuels, like burning wood and solid waste, and hydroelectric power. States often don’t classify hydroelectric as renewable for several reasons, including substantial infrastructure requirements and the disruption of water ecosystems. Many states also don’t count hydroelectric in order to pressure utilities to increase renewable energy resources beyond existing hydroelectric facilities.

It’s important to note that promoting renewable energy was a major focus of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress in February 2009 to help spur the economy in the wake of the recession. Obama signed the bill, which contained some $90 billion for energy-related investment, reimbursements for installations, a reauthorized loan guarantee program and tax credits. One of the goals was to double renewable energy generation by 2012.

Since the administration mentioned those three energy sources as their definition of “clean energy,” they are the ones we asked the Energy Information Administration about. Spokesperson John Cogan provided this information for the existing net summer capacity of energy production types in megawatts:

Year Wind Solar, Thermal and Photovoltaic Geothermal Total
2007 16,515 502 2,214 19,231
2008 24,651 536 2,229 27,416
2009 34,296 619 2,382 37,297
2010 39,135 866 2,405 42,406
2011 45,676 1,524 2,409 49,609
2012 59,075 3,170 2,592 65,377

Now, don’t go thinking we’re all suddenly living emission-free and the specter of global warming due to greenhouse gases is a thing of the past. The country still uses fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas for most of its electricity needs,about 68 percent as of June 2014 (the EIA says wind, solar and geothermal generated less than 5 percent in that time frame, up from about 1.5 percent in 2008). Still, that’s a marked decrease in fossil fuel use, which was around 85 percent in 2008.

Also, we can’t completely ignore hydroelectric and biomass sources. Those sources are considered renewable even if they weren’t named by the White House, but their use has not doubled since 2008. Both have remained basically flat in that time period.

So can Obama take credit for this spike in renewable energy resource use? Joseph Aldy, former special assistant to the president for energy and environment in 2009-10 and currently an assistant public policy professor at Harvard, says yes, arguing the combination of tax credits, grants and guaranteed loans for renewable energy projects helped boost providers through tight credit and labor markets. Current production far exceeds Energy Information Administration projections from 2009, he told PolitiFact.

Susan Glickman, the Florida director of the pro-renewables Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said some expansion would have happened anyway, since costs have gone down, particularly for wind and solar. But not only did the Recovery Act spur growth for renewable energy, the residual effects have continued. The 2013 National Renewable Energy Laboratory report bears out these growth trends, which have been fueled by federal incentives, she said.

Our ruling

Obama said, “we’ve doubled the production of clean energy.”

The White House said he was referring to wind, solar and geothermal, which are three types of renewable resources promoted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Energy Information Administration confirmed that capacity had basically doubled between 2009 and 2012, accomplishing Obama’s goals. Renewable resource advocates also agreed that the Recovery Act contributed to that growth.

Obama didn’t mention, however, that so-called “clean energy” still accounts for a sliver of U.S. energy production, which overwhelmingly relies on fossil fuels. Nor does it include other kinds of renewable energy, such as biomass and hydroelectric, which have remained relatively flat.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

Eric Stirgus, Politifact: Energy subsidies claim needs more context

In recent months, the benefits of expanding the use of solar energy in Georgia have been picked apart by grass-roots activists and others like a good bowl of Brunswick stew.

For example, PolitiFact Georgia recently examined a claim by one group that electricity rates are 40 percent higher in states that have required utility companies to use a certain amount of renewable energy such as solar power. We rated that claim Half True.

Last month, the man who runs Georgia’s largest public utility offered up some statistics concerning federal government subsidies for renewable energies such as solar. His comments prompted us to measure their accuracy on the Truth-O-Meter.

Government subsidies for renewable energies such as wind and solar are 100 times greater than those given to gas and coal, and 50 times greater than what the nuclear industry enjoys, Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning said, according to one account.

The Georgia Sierra Club disputed Fanning’s account and asked PolitiFact Georgia to determine whether he is correct.

The debate on renewable energies took on added importance when the state’s Public Service Commission voted 3-2 on July 11 to require Georgia Power, which is owned by Southern Co., to commit to using a certain amount of solar in its long-term plan.

A Southern Co. spokesman supplied us with information to back up Fanning’s claim, but others with expertise on energy subsidies say Fanning cherry-picked his data.

The company supplied us with a chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that shows how much money the federal government gave out in subsidies for various sources of energy in 2010. The chart contained numbers that were similar to the most recent EIA data concerning energy subsidies. The energy source that received the largest amount of subsidies was biofuels, at about $7.7 billion. Much of the gasoline in the United States is blended with a biofuel — ethanol. Biofuels are considered a renewable energy.

Wind energy was a distant second, at just under $5 billion. Solar energy received slightly more than $1 billion, which was less than oil and gas ($2.8 billion), and coal ($1.35 billion).

The subsidies for most renewable energies were greater than other sources, but not 100 times greater or even 50 times greater.

These numbers, though, weren’t what Southern Co. focused on in its response to us. The chart, based on reports by two federal agencies, shows how much money various forms of energy received in subsidies in comparison with each barrel of energy consumed. That’s the better way to make a comparison, Southern Co. says.

Here’s a breakdown:

Solar        $59.60

Wind        $31.33

Biofuel        $10.46

Nuclear    $1.71

Coal        $0.38

Oil and gas    $0.27

According to these numbers, solar energy’s subsidy was nearly 157 times greater than coal. Wind was 116 times greater than oil and gas. Nuclear was six times greater than oil and gas.

“This data illustrates the disproportionate amount of federal subsidies renewables are receiving compared to other energy resources,” Southern Co. spokesman Tim Leljedal said.

Leljedal added: ”

While we are continuing to expand our renewable energy resources in a manner that makes sense for customers, we recognize that the subsidization of wind and solar at current levels is not sustainable.”

Elias Hinckley, an attorney who teaches energy policy at Georgetown University and has done work for Georgia Power, believes Fanning’s claim needs considerable context. Hinckley said comparing the support for newer energy resources such as solar and wind with coal and gas is akin to measuring the popularity of Coca-Cola in Atlanta against Pepsi.

“Comparing young technologies to old, established, regulatory-protected assets is silly if you’re working on a unit of energy used basis — the point of subsidies is (or at least should be) to create a fair playing field where an unnatural advantage exists,” said Hinckley, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP, based in Washington.

Hinckley added: “Coal, for example, has had the benefit of free emissions for a century (longer if we go beyond electric production to thermal/steam use), which has never been, and can’t on a retroactive basis, be properly priced.”

Mark Thurber, an author and scholar on the economics of energy, agreed that wind and solar receive more in government subsidies. But Thurber, an associate director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, questioned the validity of such comparisons for some of the same reasons mentioned by Hinckley.

We followed up with Southern Co. concerning the criticism. We also wondered whether Fanning’s comparison is fair since the federal government boosted subsidies for renewable energies in the 2009 economic stimulus package. Leljedal noted that no one disputes subsidies for renewable energies are higher than other forms of energy.

Leljedal added: “While the amount of subsidies can vary from year to year, that fact remains that subsidies are required to make renewable energy cost-competitive with other generation resources.”

To sum up, Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning claimed government subsidies for renewable energies such as wind and solar are 100 times greater than they are for older forms of energy such as coal and oil, and 50 times greater for nuclear energy. One chart backs up Fanning’s claim on solar and wind, but not nuclear. Another report does not.

Some experts noted that renewable forms of energy haven’t been developed as long as others and need the help. Coal and natural gas have been receiving subsidies for far longer than solar energy, wind and nuclear energy, which is an important point.

Fanning’s general point that renewable energies are getting substantially greater financial support from Uncle Sam at this point in time is on target.

But the specific numbers he used aren’t entirely correct, and his claim needs some context to be fully understood.

Our rating: Half True.