By David Hales
By putting us on track to reduce United States greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent (870 million tons) below 2005 levels by 2030, the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan has – at long last – provided the United States with the necessary credibility to resume an essential leadership role in the U.N. negotiations on climate. Its success as a global example, however, rests on its strengths as a de facto domestic energy policy which will liberate Americans from a strategically unsound and financially unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels, provide a competitive and more open market place for energy resources and strengthen a critical economic sector for which we have never had a valid national strategy.
Because of these attributes, my own prediction is that, when implemented, it will allow the United States to far exceed projected greenhouse gas emission reductions, not because of regulation, but because we will increasingly choose to benefit ourselves economically while taking the right course of action with regard to human wellbeing and our environment. Doing the right thing by acting in our own financial interest is a powerful formula for change.
It will need to be.
Interests who make vast sums of money from fossil fuels are exceedingly reluctant to compete in a fair and transparent market with energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. The Clean Power Plan moves us inexorably toward such a market, to the benefit of future generations, consumers today, and the wellbeing of the natural systems of our planet.
Risking a second prediction, I would say that to protect their special interests, big oil and big coal will spend more in the next 18 months to lobby Congress, state governors and state legislatures than they have spent in any five-year period to date. (And in 2013-2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Atlas Project, and the Center for American Progress, the fossil fuel industries spent $721 million on buying influence in Congress, protecting subsidies and undercutting alternate forms of energy.)
Arrayed in potential opposition are ordinary citizens. How we react to the Clean Power Plan can and will make all the difference.
We have two critical roles to play: the first as consumers and the second as citizens.
As consumers, we contribute about one-third of America’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When electricity “end-use” is considered – who actually uses the electricity – residents and commercial businesses account for around 34 percent of electricity use. Pumping and treating the water we drink requires energy. So does treating the wastewater for most of us, and wastewater directly emits methane and oxides of nitrogen.
The trash we send away to landfills directly generates GHG emissions, especially methane, and moving the stuff around requires fuel. The food we eat requires energy to grow, process, ship and sell. Passenger cars and light-duty trucks account for over half of the emissions attributed to the transportation sector.
The choices we make day to day, household by household, small-business owner by small-business owner, are a significant cause of emissions in the U.S. Each of us will vote multiple times each day with our dollars for an emissions regime and a pattern of energy consumption.
For example, each of us makes choices of destinations, fuel type, vehicle efficiency, driving practices (speed, acceleration and braking, idling) and using alternative transportation (including walking). Making smart choices will reduce emissions, save money (usually) and send market signals. In a similar fashion, we make food choices that have a significant impact on emissions. Each product we buy has its own “climate footprint,” emissions associated with production, consumption and disposal. Not only does that avocado or almond from California consume water that cannot be replaced in our lifetime, but processing, shipping and storage all emit greenhouse gas emissions. The differences in emissions between eating meat seldom or not at all, having frequent meals from vegetables that don’t have to be processed or cooked, and choosing products that are grown close to home are significant.
The choices we make as individuals are all too often careless of climate consequences, and when all aspects are considered, our careless choices generate more emissions than the total emissions of any country in the world except the U.S., China and India. Smart choices are available that certainly reduce emissions, often save money, have health benefits and send those crucial market signals which change the corporate behavior of General Mills and Walmart as well as Hannaford and Shaws. (Stop bringing in tomatoes from South America that steal necessary profit margin from producers in Maine who are our neighbors.)
And all of us can choose renewable-based electricity today, simply by contacting our power suppliers.
The significance of the Clean Power Plan in the context of consumer choice is that it enables us to see and amplify the impacts of individual choices. Without action from the U.S. government and from other national governments, individual actions have run great risk of being stranded. When governments do their parts and implement the plan, the importance of our role is magnified.
The other critical role for individuals is as citizens of our country and our state.
Fossil resources, including fuels – and nuclear power, by the way – have a role to play in a sustainable economy, but only when they can compete in a free and fair, unsubsidized market. In a just market, the costs associated with generation will be borne by those who make the profit, and power and profits will be redistributed in ways that are good for the strategic security of the United States, as well as broad-based American prosperity.
This is especially true for Maine. Our future prosperity is dependent on the development of our unique renewable resources: wind, solar and eventually ocean thermal. We produce no fossil fuel, the prices of which are subject to great volatility now and will be more unpredictable in the coming decades. Why any leader would want to place Maine energy consumers under the control of special interests from outside the region, and even the country, is beyond my imagination, especially when there is a clear option: develop Maine’s own resources and take an influential position in a national and international high-tech, clean energy economy. More than $1 trillion in investments over the next five years await opportunities related to renewables. Jobs, investments and revenues will follow the leaders.
It is time to lead, not follow. We can build a strong and stable economy for the rest of this century and beyond, an economy with a predictable revenue base for Maine’s infrastructure, our schools and health care systems. Any politician, any political party who wants my vote anytime in the next century had better not blow this opportunity.
David Hales of Bar Harbor is a former president of College of the Atlantic and has served as counsel for sustainability policy to Worldwatch Institute. He directed environmental policy and sustainability programs at the United States Agency for International Development under the Clinton administration, where he also worked as a lead negotiator on climate issues.