As another Republican candidate debate came and went, it has become fairly clear that the issue of climate change isn't going to get much of a hearing, apart perhaps from some questioning of the science.
While climate change may not be the defining issue of the moment in the USA, given the long term importance of the subject it would nevertheless be useful to understand how the various candidates for office might seek to shape the energy and climate policy landscape through this decade. The climate issue will almost certainly come back to confront a president in office through to 2017 and is probably inescapable for a candidate with ambition to serve through to 2021.
Six areas of discussion and debate that could be on the agenda over the coming year would ensure both a better understanding of the subject and the range of potential policy directions that might be pursued by the next president:
Many economists have said that the most effective way of beginning the long and complex task of managing carbon dioxide emissions is to put a price on the right to emit CO2 from power stations, industrial sources and transport. Although carbon pricing exists in some areas under regional and state based systems, a consistent national approach has yet to be developed.
Over the past decade the US has developed a major biofuels industry, become a leader in wind power deployment and significantly increased natural gas production. More recently new vehicle CAFE standards have been agreed. All of these offer real opportunity for significant emissions reduction, but need to be part of a broader energy policy framework that includes emissions management as an objective. The United States has already indicated its intention through the UNFCCC to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 relative to 2005 and these options, if managed within the context of this goal, offer the possibility of success.
As a major current emitter and the largest cumulative historical emitter, it is important that the United States (with the EU, Canada, Australia, China, Japan and others) lead on the global task of managing CO2 emissions. But going it alone (or in a small club) isn't a sustainable outcome. The USA will need to work with partners such as the EU and China to encourage and ultimately ensure global participation in the task of emissions reduction.
Technology will play a long term role in the management of emissions. This will include scaled up use of technologies that the US already has experience with such as wind, biofuels and nuclear, together with new energy technologies such as solar and carbon dioxide capture and storage. New policies will be required to promote the development, demonstration and deployment of these and other technologies and to grow the technical skill base required to support this endeavor.
Looking beyond 2020:
With the 2020 energy picture now taking shape, longer term objectives need to be considered to ensure investment decisions made over the coming decade are compatible with the desired direction for 2030 and beyond. For example, should the USA have a recognized policy goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions very substantially (this means something like an 80% reduction) over the first half of this century?
Extreme weather events of recent years and current heat and drought extremes have at least demonstrated that a considerable response effort would be required should climate trends result in an increased frequency and/or intensity of such events. Sea level change may also pose a challenge for some areas as we head towards the middle of the century. Although the USA has a considerable response capacity, there is merit in beginning to fashion a more robust policy approach to physical climate change.