Obama’s environment speech triggers emissions debate

News editor

The US president’s speech on the US’s carbon emissions has thrown the spotlight on the west’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage

Simple souls such as myself are easily blinded by the variables that contribute to climate change debate.

For example, you might feel pleased with yourself for buying an all-electric car but does its carbon footprint compare favourably to that of a similar sized petrol vehicle over the course of its life?

In 2011 LowCVP published details of a report that said 46 per cent of an EV’s total carbon footprint is generated at the factory but will save six tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime compared to a typical medium sized family car.

At the time LowCVP said, ‘Decarbonising both electricity supply, through renewables; and the production of batteries will therefore be essential for electric vehicles to deliver ultra-low carbon lifetime emissions.’

A large degree of clarity was brought to the fossil-fuel variable last week by Prof Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at Oxford University, who appeared to apply the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle when describing the current situation.

‘In a nutshell, we started out with four trillion tonnes of fossil carbon underground,’ he said. ‘It has taken us 250 years to dump half a trillion tonnes into the atmosphere; if we carry on as we are, we’ll dump the next half-trillion in about 35 years; and the half-trillion after that will take us over two degrees.’

Prof Allen was responding to President Obama’s speech last week which set the wheels in motion for a federally endorsed curb on carbon emissions from power plants.

Addressing an audience at Georgetown University President Obama said, ‘About 40 per cent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants…Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air.

‘We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulphur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.’

President Obama then went onto describe how the USA can take a lead in accelerating renewables, introducing energy efficiency standards in buildings, vehicles and appliances, and the importance the public sector in implementing these standards. The US Department of Defense, for example, will install three gigawatts of renewable power on its bases and federal government will consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within the next seven years.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment cautioned that President Obama’s efforts will amount to nothing without support from Congress.

‘The Republican Party and their supporters in the media have been hoaxing the American people over the past few years by claiming that scientists are divided over the causes and potential consequences of climate change.

‘Scientists across the world, including the United States National Academy of Sciences, are in agreement that the Earth is warming, humans are mainly responsible, and that if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut urgently, hundreds of millions of people will face huge risks from rising sea levels and changes in extreme weather.

‘President Obama is right to accept the advice of scientists and to seek to protect Americans against the threat of climate change.’

Many US states are already ahead of the game – over 25 are said to have set energy efficiency targets and more than 35 have set renewable energy targets – and US Department of Energy laboratory’s consistently publish details about gains made in all areas of energy generation.

President Obama’s federal mandate, with a strong emphasis on engineering an entrepreneurship help create jobs and curb emissions, could lead to investment opportunities around the world and an event taking place today will look at how those can be exploited.

Energy Futures: Towards trans-Atlantic cooperation on low-carbon energy supply acknowledges that Europe and the US are investing millions in low-carbon energy sources to help grow their economies sustainably through 2050 and beyond.

The organisers say, ‘Both want greater cooperation in this endeavour, and are about to begin trade negotiations that could bring that goal within reach. This…event examines possible areas for greater cooperation on energy innovation within the world’s largest trading relationship.’

The UK’s emissions targets are considerable in themselves and today the news broke that Costain, Atkins, and Van Oord have reached agreements to partner with Tidal Lagoon Power Limited to design, build and deliver the world’s first tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay.

It is claimed the proposed 240MW power plant in Swansea Bay – representing an investment of £650m – will produce baseload electricity for up to 16 hours each day, using ebb and flood tides and will save over 200,000 tonnes of CO2per year for its design life of over 100 years.

In a statement issued today Ton Fijen, Technical Director for Tidal Lagoon Power said, ‘We know that there is an available 10,000MW of potential sites in the UK alone that are suitable for tidal lagoon development.

‘The Swansea project will hopefully be the first in a network of lagoons around the UK coastline, driving a critical change in our energy mix with low cost, low carbon electricity sources that are sustainable long-term.’