One of President Obama's key electoral pledges in 2008 was a commitment to tackle environmental issues. Four years later, little to nothing has happened - and is unlikely to anytime soon, writes Sascha Müller-Kraenner.
When President Obama was elected four years ago, his platform promised to put the environment at the top of an agenda to revitalize the economy at home and America's standing abroad. Looking back after four years, the record is mixed. Ambitions for the next four years are much more modest.
Four years ago, Obama announced three major environmental policy initiatives. Comprehensive climate legislation with a European-style emission trading system (cap and trade) should regulate domestic greenhouse gas emission by putting a cap on them. Based on that domestic reduction target, the new government promised to re-engage constructively in the United Nation's climate talks where the Bush administration had been near absent after bowing out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. In addition to climate change, an ecological modernization of America's wasteful economy was put at the center of Obama's plan to regain technology leadership in critical sectors such as renewable energy and green technology.
After four years the record remains decidedly mixed.
Comprehensive climate legislation failed in Congress after having been blocked by the Republican minority plus a group of Democrats mainly from states with coal mining and heavy industry. However, US emissions have declined significantly in the past years due to the combined effects of the economic recession, a shift from coal to gas from shale gas extraction, and other policy measures such as increased fuel efficiency standards for cars. Another push for climate legislation, an emission trading system or an energy tax is not on the agenda due to lack of political support in either party.
In the absence of domestic climate action, the re-emergence of the US as a leader in international climate policy was seriously impacted. The Obama administration put forward a modest 17 percent greenhouse gas reduction target for the period of 2005-2020. Although this was the first time after Kyoto that the US pledged to reduce its emissions, the target falls behind what others like Europe are doing and will probably be met without major policy action as emissions are sinking anyway. The current budget deficit, as well as resistance from Republicans in Congress, also presents a danger to maintaining US financial commitments for climate action in developing countries. Although the national development agency USAID has made climate change one of its priorities, current payments lag behind what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised at the climate summit in Copenhagen.
Most progress was made on the technology front. Investment in research and development, particularly under the aegis of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was significantly increased. Several states introduced tax breaks or renewable portfolio standards that led to a small boom of renewable energy, in particular wind energy. The boom of cheap shale gas development led to a shift away from coal and the decommissioning of major coal plants. Fuel efficiency standards were increased and, together with rising gasoline prizes, led to a broad shift to smaller more efficient cars, although not yet to the extent as in Europe or Asia. The Environmental Protection Agency, although still seriously understaffed, was finally given the permission to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which may lead to new licensing standards for power plants in the future.
A greener future?
Although progress was made in several areas, the dependence of the US economy on a resource depleting economic model and in particularly cheap fossil fuels remains. The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico remains a symbol of the American addiction to oil and its negative effects on human health and the natural environment.
While the environment figured as a major theme of Obama's first campaign, it is almost absent in the second. No major green reform projects have been announced so far. Still, incremental progress in many areas should be expected if Obama wins. Fuel efficiency standards might be further increased, as already announced by the administration. Support programs for renewable energy will continue and will eventually lead to a self sustaining industry as in Europe. Long-term research and development investments in renewable energy, efficiency solutions and electric mobility could slowly start to pay off.
The problem remains that large parts of the US economy, particularly the manufacturing sector, are not competitive. A green economy and a push for sustainable technologies could be part of an economic resurgence and at the same time create high quality jobs that the US labor market urgently needs.
Sascha Müller-Kraenner is Executive Director of the Nature Conservancy in Europe, based in Berlin.