You Ought to Have a Look: Faced with a Losing Hand, Obama Sweetens the Pot

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary. 

More and more, harsh reality is stacking up against our ability to achieve the cuts in our national emissions of greenhouse gases that President Obama promised the international community gathered in Paris last December at the UN’s climate conference. In that regard, here some items we think you ought to have a look at.

A couple of weeks ago, we reported that it was looking as if the EPA’s methane emission numbers were a bit, how should we say it, rosy. We suggested that emissions of methane (a strong greenhouse gas) from the U.S. were quite a bit higher than EPA estimates, and that they have been increasing over the past 10 years or so, whereas the EPA reports that they have been in decline. Factoring in this new science meant that the recent decline in total greenhouse gas emissions from the US was about one-third less than being advertised by the EPA and President Obama— imperiling our promise made at the UN’s December 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

Goings-on during the intervening weeks have only acted to further cement our assessment.

EPA has come around to admitting its error—to at least some degree. Wall Street Journal’s energy policy reporter Amy Harder tweeted this from EPA Chief Gina McCarthy:

  

The details behind McCarthy’s statement can be found in a new report from the EPA—a draft of its 2016 edition of the annual US Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report.  In the new draft, the EPA reports that they are in the process of reworking their previous estimates of methane emissions from “natural gas systems” and “petroleum systems.”  They put out a call for public input on their new mythology, which, as a provided example, results in 27% more emissions from those sources in 2013 than the EPA had determined previously.  EPA promises to apply the new methodology to all of its methane emissions from 1990 to the present and notes that:

Trend information has not yet been calculated, but it is expected that across the 1990-2013 time series, compared to the previous (2015) Inventory, in the current (2016) Inventory, the total CH4 emissions estimate will increase, with the largest increases in the estimate occurring in later years of the time series.

Larger increases later in the time series will act to lessen the decline or perhaps even switch the sign of the overall trend.

And even without including the new calculations for natural gas and petroleum systems, the EPA requantified the reported decline in US methane emissions. In last year’s report, they wrote “[m]ethane (CH4) emissions in the United States decreased by almost 15% between 1990 and 2013.” This year, its “[o]verall, from 1990 to 2014…total emissions of CH4 decreased by 37.4 MMT CO2 Eq. (5.0 percent).” The changes arise largely as a result of new examinations and recalculations involving methane release from landfills.

More and more, the EPA’s methane picture is looking, how should we say it, less rosy.

It seems the closer folks look, the more it appears that Obama’s proud accomplishments and promises are proving to be little more than smoke and mirrors.

Take the Clean Power Plan. Almost every analyst alive knew that the plan was a big stretch of the Clean Air Act and that it was going to face legal challenges that were not going to be resolved until the Supreme Court had its say in June, 2017.  A 5-4 decision is almost certain, with the outcome hinging on November’s election, after which the President will nominate a justice to replace Antonin Scalia who will actually be reviewed by the Senate.   Knowing his Plan was in legal hot water, Obama nonetheless told the Paris assembly “we’ve said yes to the first-ever set of national standards limiting the amount of carbon pollution our power plants can release into the sky.” Barely two months later, the Supreme Court said “not so fast” and stayed the Clean Power Plan pending the outcome of all the challenges.

And then, as we mentioned, there’s the methane issue. The EPA said emissions were declining, when in fact they are almost certainly rising. So much so, that the total decline in greenhouse gas emission from the U.S. has likely been overestimated by as much as a third. This situation is a bit grimmer than what President Obama said in Paris: “Over the last seven years, we’ve made…ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions.”

Also, it looks as if the pathway to our promise was rigged.  In a series of recent reports by David Bailey and David Bookbinder for the Niskanen Center, the authors show that the Obama Administration is employing some creative accounting to work the numbers to make it look like there is a clear path towards meeting our Paris target.

From their January report “The Administration’s Climate Confession … and New Deception” comes this assessment:

In the little-noted Second Biennial Report of the United States of America Under the United Nations Framework submitted to the U.N. climate process on December 31, the Administration impliedly admitted that the measures it listed in the INDC would leave us short, by about 500 -800 MMT. The Report itself is a masterpiece of obfuscation in the name of transparency. It includes emission reductions dating back to the 1990s in its list of current measures, and for the majority of measures does not list any reductions numbers. But, not to fear, because “additional measures” of up to 700 MMT, plus a new, secret ingredient [a rapid expansion of US carbon sinks from forestry] worth about another 300 MMT, will still get us to the 2025 target.

And, after having a look at the new EPA draft report, Bailey and Bookbinder responded with “New EPA Data Casts More Doubt on Obama’s Climate Promises,” where they concluded:

The new estimates of carbon sinks are particularly significant. We discussed before how the Administration’s Second Biennial Report to the IPCC indicated that the U.S. is relying on an implausibly large increase in absorption of GHGs in sinks to meet the Paris target, from 912 MMT absorbed in 2005 to over 1,200 MMT absorbed by 2025. The revised estimate for 2005 sinks is now 636 MMT, or less than 70% of what the Biennial Report stated only two months ago. Thus, one of the Administration’s main compliance tools now requires not a 30+% increase to 2025, but nearer to a 100% increase.

The biggest impact of these revisions will be (once again) on the credibility of our Paris commitment to reduce 2005 emissions by 26% by 2025. 

The effect on Obama’s Paris promise of all of the above (and more) is well-summed in this story from Inside Climate News:

New data this week showing how little progress the United States has made in cutting greenhouse gas emissions since President Obama took office is the latest evidence to undercut the pledges the United States made in negotiating the Paris climate treaty.

The Clean Power Plan’s crackdown on coal-fired power plants is on hold, thanks to the Supreme Court. Methane emissions are turning out to be higher than previously thought, as natural gas booms. People are buying more gas-guzzling cars, thanks to low prices at the pump.

And now, in a draft of its annual greenhouse gas emissions tally, the EPA reported that emissions in the year 2014 climbed almost 1 percent from 2013 to 2014. That brought emissions back above the level of Obama’s first year in office, 2009.

In negotiating the Paris treaty, signed in December, the U.S. pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, below the level of 2005.

The new data shows that from 2005 to 2014 emissions went down just 7.5 percent, leaving most of those promised reductions off in the distance, like a hazy mirage.

Most of that decline is due to the nosedive in emissions that came with the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

In a quarter-century, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have marched mostly in the wrong direction.

Ouch.

All the while, President Obama is leading the push to get countries to sign the Paris Agreement  at a big press event to be held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on April 22—Earth Day.  The Agreement must be ratified by at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions before coming into effect. 

Lest some countries become worried that Obama’s Paris emissions pledge was but a well-orchestrated sham and start to get cold feet about signing the Agreement, the President, this week, did manage to slip $500 million into the U.N.’s  Green Climate Fund.  Perhaps that’ll be enough hush money to keep the complaints muted. A rich-to-poor money transfer more so than climate change mitigation is, after all, arguably the most attractive part of the Paris Agreement for most countries.