Certainly, the concerted efforts of the Trump administration to bolster the fortunes of their supporters in the fossil fuel industry through policy actions such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and dismantling the Clean Power Plan (CPP) have dealt a blow to the hopes of millions around the world that future climate catastrophe might be headed off, or at least mitigated.
Yet, hundreds of American cities, companies and other entities have pledged to uphold the targets and continue to make plans and manage their resources with the intent of meeting the target, despite the Federal government’s disengagement.
This parallels the game plan laid out recently by Bill McKibben in The Nation, where he states, “None of the strategies rely on Washington’s doing anything useful. In fact, because DC has emerged as the fossil-fuel industry’s impregnable fortress, our strategies look everywhere else for progress.”
So, people and institutions everywhere else become empowered, which is great, but the question remains, can the US still manage to meet its original commitment without the CPP, which was intended to provide a 32% reduction by 2030 from the electric power sector, which is roughly a third of the ultimate emission reduction of 26-28% (from 2005 levels) from all sectors committed to in Paris.
Looking at data from the US EIA’s 2017 Annual Energy Outlook report, a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, (CMU) led by Paul Fischbeck, Professor, Social and Decision Sciences, Engineering and Public Policy, set out to answer this question, looking specifically at power sector emissions. The short answer turns out to be that it is, theoretically possible, at least in the short term. Since the movement would be depending largely on market forces more than government policy or good intentions for that matter, the cost trajectory for natural gas could very well be the deciding factor.
As indeed it has been. In fact, market forces have been such a pronounced influence on the electricity sector’s emissions profile, that as of today (estimated 2017 emissions, not yet finalized), we are already on track to meet the goal that the CPP had set for 2025! Of course, the population and presumably, the economy and therefore the demand for electricity will continue to grow between now and then. That means it could be harder to maintain that level than it was to achieve it. In spite of that rising demand, the EIA is projecting the emission levels in 2020 to be lower than the CPP target.
In the period between 2005 and 2017, CO2 emissions declined by roughly 30%. That’s the good news, and it is good news indeed. The not-so-good news which will not be surprising, is that it will take more than the current low natural gas prices to meet the 2030 target of 32%. Projections for 2025, also show that emission levels will not meet the CPP target unless natural gas prices fall further, which they are not expected to do.
Anyone following this issue closely knows that we still have a long way to go. The CPP targets are just one milepost on an early stretch of a long highway. To meet the temperature targets laid out in Paris, will require far more than coal plants converting to natural gas. People are finally talking about applying carbon capture and storage technology to natural gas power plants, but even that will provide power that is carbon neutral at best. Most experts now agree that a substantial amount of carbon negative activity will be required to meet the Paris goals.
The authors’ suggestion that in the absence of a CPP, the reductions have “relied solely on market forces,” is not entirely true, as a number of actions at state and local levels, such as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) have also had an impact. This study by Sekar and Sohngren at Ohio State claims a 4% RPS contribution through 2010.The tremendous growth in solar and wind, voluntarily sought out in both the commercial and residential markets have also played a role.
Looking ahead towards 2030, clearly more of that will be required. Aggressive action at the Federal level would certainly help, if directed wisely.
While regulatory actions at the Federal level would seem unlikely in the near-term, the Trump administration did approve a tax credit called 45Q for carbon capture and sequestration, a climate-positive measure that they clearly backed into, since the oil companies like to use the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University