New White House rules focused on cutting methane emissions are the last big chance for the president to cement his legacy on climate change.
Barack Obama has long promised action on climate change. During this year's State of the Union address, set for next Tuesday, he'll finally have some measured progress to report. Throughout most of his presidency, Obama has neglected the climate. Instead, he's focused his efforts on health-care reform and escaping budgetary wrangles with Congress. Obama didn't even mention climate change once during the 2012 presidential debates, instead choosing to push an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that's led to a massive resurgence of the American oil and gas industry.
Now, in the heart of his second term, things have changed—slightly. By focusing on executive actions in lieu of support from a hostile Congress, Obama has nudged America's future fossil fuel throttle down a notch or two. In the short-term, though, progress remains slow. America's carbon emissions increased overall in 2014, and though they're now on a slightly less apocalypse-inducing trajectory than they were a year ago, the current policy mix still isn't quite adequate to keep global warming to safe levels. There's a big difference between making public pledges to reduce carbon emissions and actually reducing them.
Obama doesn't want his legacy to be another president who had access to overwhelming evidence on climate change but didn't act. And act he has. If you factor in the anticipated impact of new policies out to 2025, the White House calculates we'll avoid a total of 3 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide emissions. That's only little more than six months worth of our emissions at current rates, but it's something.
Though his domestic policy achievements on climate change will help, history may view Obama's greatest achievement on climate change on the international stage. Appearing with the Chinese president in Beijing in November, he sent a clear signal to the world that if we want to fix this problem, the two countries are going to have to bridge our differences and work together.
By all accounts, 2015 is a make-or-break year for the climate. If Obama is able to help broker the first truly global agreement in Paris this December—one that's consistent with calls by scientists for truly rapid emissions reductions—it will be one of the greatest achievements by any US president in history. His administration has already helped steer international negotiations away from a legally binding treaty toward a "politically binding" accord, because there's little chance Congress would approve the former. This year, expect Secretary of State John Kerry, who's called climate change "the greatest challenge of our generation," to focus on his efforts to craft an ambitious deal.
But no matter what happens in Paris, Obama's not waiting. On Wednesday, the White House announced a new plan to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry for the first time, aiming for a 40-45 percent reduction from 2012 levels by 2025. Methane, the principal component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is 87 times as powerful as carbon dioxide on a 20 year timescale—about as much time as scientists say we have left before "dangerous" climate change is locked in, assuming current emissions trajectories.
However, there's a major loophole: the proposed rule applies only to future oil and gas infrastructure. If you're of the mind that natural gas will form an important near-term transition "bridge fuel" while renewable energy sources ramp up—consistent with Obama's "all of the above" plan—then this action probably means something to you. But if you factor in methane leaks, it's not at all obvious that burning natural gas is an advantage over coal. The new White House rules would aim, in part, at helping the industry plug those leaks. And only 29 percent of America's methane emissions come from the oil and gas industry. Agriculture is an even bigger source, at 34 percent, mostly from the beef and dairy industry.
This action on methane is about as much as can be expected via executive action alone, and it's nowhere near the scale of change that's needed. It's the last major action Obama is expected to take domestically, combined with much improved vehicle fuel efficiency and regulations on power plants. Obama's also recently announced he's planning to veto any legislation that would force approval of the languishing Keystone XL pipeline, which would be a long-sought moral victory for environmental campaigners.
But we're far past the time for moral victories. The latest administration move on methane comes amid fresh evidence that a majority of fossil fuels must stay in the ground to reach global goals on global warming. And Obama's accomplishments over the last 12 months are nowhere near enough to put America on a responsible climate path. But it's a start.
Climate change is such a pressing problem that it will require a bold rethink of the entire economy for real progress to be made. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. With solar grid parity essentially already here and a majority of the Republican electorate in favor of climate action, those systemic changes could come about more quickly than most people realize.
The major risk with Obama's executive action strategy for tackling climate change is that any new rules must be in place before he leaves office. That doesn't give the White House much time. No matter which party the next president belongs to, Obama will have to trust them to pass economy-wide climate legislation in order for his pledges to be fulfilled. Until then, his climate legacy will be mostly talk.
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