Inauguration day: Obama’s climate legacy

21 January 2013

Hours before Obama's second inauguration, Amy Davidsen, US Executive Director, The Climate Group, comments on the US President's climate legacy.

On the eve of his second term, President Obama faces a choice about the kind of legacy he’ll leave on the issue of climate change.

It is not, as some have suggested, a choice between a legacy of inaction or progress.

Too much has already been achieved for that.

Instead, it’s a choice about the kind of progress he will ultimately accept – the kind that leaves the country better off than it was when he took office, or the kind that leaves the country where it actually needs to be.

Emissions targets

The first kind of progress already looks inevitable. Since his inauguration four years ago, US carbon emissions have fallen 10% to 5.2 billion tons in 2012 – their lowest level since 1995.

While some of this decline can be attributed to the recession, the past two years have seen emissions continue to fall alongside economic growth, pointing instead to the shift from coal to natural gas and renewables taking place in the power sector – caused by a combination of low gas prices and the President’s environmental regulations.

With this trend set to continue into his second term, a mere continuation of the President’s current policies (i.e. EPA regulations, efficiency standards, clean energy incentives, etc.) will put the US on the path to meeting his short term emissions reduction goal of 17% by 2020.

But while meeting this goal may be enough to take care of Obama’s personal legacy, it will not be enough to take care of the climate.

Wrong direction

The latest analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA), estimates that even with the adoption of newly announced policies, global carbon emissions will continue to rise from 31 gigatons in 2011 to 37 gigatons in 2035 – increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 660 parts per million, and causing an average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius. This is well beyond the 2-degree mark considered to be the threshold for preventing dangerous interference with the climate.

Dr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist, IEA, put it plainly: "The chance of reaching the 2-degree Celsius target is getting slimmer and slimmer. The world is going in the wrong direction in terms of climate change.”

Going in the right direction will require more than just moderate improvements to current policies.

It will require the adoption of new policies aimed at further reducing emissions, like putting a price on carbon. For example, the IEA estimates that meeting the 2-degree target would involve carbon pricing in all OECD countries – with the US adopting a carbon price of $20 per ton by 2020.



A second term provides President Obama with the opportunity to pursue these new policies, such as a carbon tax or a clean energy standard (which could have the same impact on emissions as a US$23 per ton price on carbon).

The question is whether he will be satisfied with the progress he’s already poised to achieve, or if he will insist on the Clean Revolution the world really needs.

A Clean Revolution will enhance our national and energy security, future-proof our infrastructure and boost jobs, and therefore our economy.

The latter road will not be easy, and will require a measure of public engagement and bipartisanship unmet in his first term. But it is the only one that will lead to a truly secure and prosperous future.

His legacy may not depend on it. But the climate certainly does. 


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