The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is where Obama’s hugely ambitious climate policies were headed — before Trump came along

Solar installers from Baker Electric place solar panels on the roof of a residential home in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, Calif., (Reusters/Mike Blake TPX Images of the day)
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This story has been updated.

The White House Wednesday unleashed a detailed 111-page document outlining a “mid century strategy” to massively slash U.S. carbon emissions by the year 2050, reducing them 80 percent “or more” below their 2005 levels. Just to give some sense of scale, the long-term impact of the plan would be larger than the effect of instantly taking all cars off U.S. roads.

The breathtaking “deep decarbonization” document, timed for the ongoing Marrakech, Morocco climate meetings, is meant to build upon the U.S.’s existing pledge to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, which represents the country’s commitment under the newly operative Paris climate agreement. But it comes at a time when a burst of doubt has been thrust into this entire process by the election of Donald Trump, who has pledged to “cancel” the Paris deal, expand carbon intensive coal burning, and who does not accept the underlying science of climate change.

Signaling that its engagement in the Paris process is hardly flagging, White House also formally submitted the mid-century report to the United Nations under the agreement.

Even as the report was released, Secretary of State John Kerry, freshly back from a trip to Antarctica to survey the ravages of climate change firsthand, spoke at the Marrakesh meeting. There, he told nervous negotiators that “no one should doubt the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening, and who are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris.”

John Kerry wanted to see how Antarctica was changing. When he returned, the entire world had

The remarks suggested an emerging tone of resoluteness in Marrakech, similar to remarks Tuesday by French President Francois Hollande that the Paris agreement is “irreversible.”

“Ironically, Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Paris agreement has created new resolve among nations here to make the Paris process succeed, with or without U.S. help,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate official who was attending the talks, by email.

The new 2050 report, which the White House had committed to releasing back in March and which appears to have been in motion for some time, states that the U.S. “can meet the growing demands on its energy system and lands while achieving a low-emissions pathway, maintaining a thriving economy, and ensuring a just transition for Americans whose livelihoods are connected to fossil fuel production and use.”

The document outlines a suite of strategies to reduce emissions, including the potential adoption of futuristic technologies.

Not only must the U.S. cease “nearly all fossil fuel electricity production” (except for coal or gas combined with carbon capture and storage), electrify its vehicles, and phase down other greenhouse gases — methane from oil and gas and agriculture, nitrous oxide from agricultural operations and other sources, hydroflurocarbons from refrigerants–it must expand the areas of the country covered by forests by 40 to 50 million acres.

On top of that, the document also speaks of potentially implementing a technology called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS, which would actively subtract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It would do so through a process that combines together burning trees or plants for energy, storing the carbon released in the ground, and then growing more plants and pulling more carbon from the air.

BECCS is controversial, however, in part because the technology does not exist at a large scale. It also could require enormous amounts of land in order to grow and regrow the required plants or trees. The White House document both holds the technology out as a possibility but also says that 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gases are available without a reliance on it.

If the U.S. were to achieve this 2050 goal, then we would move from emitting some 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year down to well below 2 billion tons. Eventually, emissions in all countries will have to decline to zero in order to meet long range climate goals.

But the entire edifice appears to builds upon the U.S.’s more near term goal of 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025, which in turn relies on Obama policies, like the Clean Power Plan. That’s a policy that Trump has pledged to reverse.

Several climate policy experts in Marrakech nonetheless argued Wednesday that an ambitious goal for 2050, like the one unveiled by the administration, is not necessarily lost simply because of Trump’s election and professed policies.

“At least for the next 5 years, a lot of the things that need to happen are already being driven forward,” said David Waskow, who heads the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute and spoke from Marrakech, citing existing tax credits for renewable energy and vehicle fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. “It’s not to say that everything that needs to be done now is going to be done but there’s some drivers that take us in the right direction, and also the market forces.”

“While four years will influence the trajectory, it will not define it,” added Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, senior director of international climate cooperation at the World Wildlife Fund, and also in Marrakech. “The US’s ability to address climate change doesn’t rest solely with the White House – we also need continued cuts from the corporate sector and at the sub-national level.”

Still, in his speech Wednesday, Secretary of State Kerry did acknowledge the “uncertainty” the U.S. election had created for the delegates and the international community that had assembled.

“While I can’t stand here and speculate about what policies our president-elect will pursue, I will tell you this:  In the time that I have spent in public life, one of the things I have learned is that some issues look a little bit different when you’re actually in office compared to when you’re on the campaign trail,” said Kerry.

Clarification: The 2050 strategy released by the White House does contemplate reducing “nearly all fossil fuel electricity production” but it leaves room for burning coal and natural gas when combined with carbon capture and storage. The article was updated to make that clear.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

Trump taps climate-change skeptic to oversee EPA transition

Obama’s government just released a new oil and gas rule — and Trump’s may not like it much

Scientists say climate change wiped out an entire underwater ecosystem. Again.

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