It never ceases to amaze me how the very mention of the word “climate” causes people to lose all touch with their rational faculties. And of course I’m not talking here just about the ordinary man on the street, but also, indeed especially, about our elected leaders and government functionaries.
The latest example is President Biden’s pledge, issued at his “World Climate Summit” on April 22, to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 – 52% from the levels of 2005, and to do so by 2030. In my last post a couple of days ago, I remarked that “Biden himself has absolutely no idea how this might be accomplished. And indeed it will not be accomplished.” Those things are certainly true, but also fail to do full justice to the extent to which our President and his handlers have now left the real world and gone off into total fantasy.
Back in 2016, when Barack Obama was President and it was time to go along (or not) with the Paris Climate Agreement, the idea still existed in the government that pledges to reduce GHG emissions ought to bear some relationship to reality. The pledge made by Obama on behalf of the U.S. in the Paris Agreement was to reduce GHG emissions by 26 – 28% from the 2005 level, and to do so by 2026. In 2016, U.S. GHG emissions were already down by more than 12% from the 2005 level, from 7,423.0 MMT CO2e in 2005 to 6520.3 MMT CO2e in 2016, according to the EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks (see chart at pages ES 7-9); and that had been with very minimal coercive input from the government. If a 12% reduction could be achieved in the first 11 years, then a further 14% reduction in another 10 years would not be wildly out of line.
Indeed, it appeared that Obama’s people had the already-existing gradual pace of decline in mind when they made their commitment. Much of the decline in GHG emissions from 2005 to 2016 came about from the fracking revolution, and accompanying substitution of (lower emissions) natural gas for (higher emissions) coal; and most of the rest resulted from gradual efficiency improvements in energy usage throughout the economy. It would not have been crazy in 2016 to expect those things to continue at roughly the same pace.
But let’s consider where we are now. GHG emissions for 2019 were 6,558.3 MMT CO2e, which was actually up from 2016. Emissions for 2020 are said to have been down about 10% from 2019, but almost entirely due to steep declines in driving and air travel due to the pandemic. Those emissions from transport almost certainly will come back, perhaps not all right away, but almost all within a couple of years, if indeed there are not increases.
Even with the 10% decline in emissions in 2020, we’re down only about 20% from 2005. If you believe that travel will shortly come back to pre-pandemic levels, we will then be down only about 10% from 2005. Biden’s pledge is a 50% reduction from 2005, so something in the range of 30 – 40% additional in just nine years. And note that Biden is not just talking about the electricity sector (only about 30% of emissions), but about things like transportation (driving and flying), home heating, agriculture and industry that today almost completely depend on fossil fuels.
In a piece at Substack on April 22, Roger Pielke, Jr., gives an idea of what Biden’s pledge would mean in the real world.
Net greenhouse gas emissions were 6.635 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2005, so a 50% reduction target is 3.318 Gt in 2030. In 2019, there were 5.769 Gt of net emissions, meaning that by 2030, the U.S. will have to reduce its emissions by about 2.450 Gt, or more than 270 Gt per year. That equates to an annual rate of emissions reductions of about 6.3% to 2030.
Since we’re not likely to have solar-powered airplanes or steel mills any time soon, the main focus of emissions reductions of this magnitude can only be the electricity sector. And then, given that the entire electricity sector is only about 30% of emissions, the whole sector basically needs to go to zero emissions to meet the Biden target. What would that look like? Pielke:
In January 2021, according to the US Energy Information Agency in the United States there were 1,852 coal and natural gas power plants that generated electricity. By 2035, to hit President Biden’s target all of these power plants will have to be either shut down or converted into zero-emissions power plants (using carbon capture and storage technologies that presently do not exist). There are 164 months until 2035. That means that more than 11 of the fossil fuel power plants operational in January 2021 will need to be closed every month, on average, starting today until 2035.
And of course there is nothing out there remotely capable of filling the gap caused by shuttering those 1,852 plants. Wind and solar, even if you blanket the country with them, are next to useless without keeping the majority of the coal and natural gas plants as backup. Nuclear? Theoretically it could work, but given the lead times involved there would have to be hundreds of such plants already far along in planning and construction to try to meet this kind of goal. There aren’t. And the same environmentalists demanding an end to fossil fuels also oppose nuclear with equal fanaticism, and would be there to block you at every step of the process.
For a closer look at reality on the ground, let’s consider some recent developments in New York. New York fancies itself as the great climate messiah, leading the country and even the world into the future zero emissions utopia. In 2019 New York enacted something called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which they describe on their website as follows:
On July 18, 2019, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act). New York State’s Climate Act is the among the most ambitious climate laws in the world and requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.
Regulations to implement these drastic emissions reductions mandated by the law were finalized by the Governor in December 2020. Surely,, then, we are well off to a great start on our emissions reductions?
Actually, at the same time as we have adopted this noble-sounding Act and regulations, what we’ve really been doing is closing our big zero-emissions nuclear power plant and replacing it with brand-new natural gas facilities. Until last year, about 25 – 30% of the electricity for New York City came from a nuclear plant about 40 miles north of the City called Indian Point. Even as he has also talked endlessly about carbon emissions reductions, Governor Andrew Cuomo has made closing the Indian Point reactors a political priority. Of the two operating reactors at Indian Point, one closed in 2020, and the second is now scheduled to cease operations on April 30, 2021 — that is, at the end of the current week.
But they couldn’t close Indian Point without something to replace the power. And so, two big new natural gas-burning facilities have opened in the past few years. First, a 680 MW natural gas plant called CPV Valley Energy Center opened in Wawayanda, New York in February 2018; and then a 1000 MW natural gas plant called Cricket Valley Energy Center opened in Dover, New York, in April 2020.
Supposedly the big solution going forward is going to be vast amounts of offshore wind turbines to be built out in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. So far, it’s nothing but talk. One of the proposals to advance the farthest calls for a big 15 wind turbines off the Eastern tip of the island. But if the turbines are built, the power will need to come onshore by cable at some location. In January the Town of East Hampton granted an easement for the cable to come onshore in an area called Wainscott — and immediately a group of wealthy homeowners in the area brought a lawsuit to block it. We’ll see where that goes.
But it gets even worse. Just last week, something called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the federal government canceled two of the wind energy development zones off Long Island. According to a report April 20 in the Wall Street Journal:
“Bureau of Ocean Energy Management officials said the zones off the island’s coast raised problems with maritime traffic, marine life feeding areas, and concerns over visibility from South Shore beaches. In short, they were a nuisance to fishermen, shippers and gentry with homes in the tony Hamptons area full of Manhattanites during the summer.”
In other words, despite the big talk, and lots of spending and subsidies, all the “progress” so far towards zero emissions has been negative.