Obama going to Copenhagen with 17% reduction goal. Why not 35%?

As of today, all four of the largest greenhouse gas polluters (China, the US, the EU, and India — no, not Texas) have announced the greenhouse gas reduction goals they want to pursue at the Copenhagen climate talks (COP-15) this week in Denmark. Here’s the rundown:

  • EU: 20% cut in emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2020
  • USA: 17% cut below 2005 levels by 2020
  • China: 40-45% relative to the size of their economy (cutting what is called “carbon intensity”–curbing growth but not cutting it)
  • India: 25% cut in carbon intensity.

Well, it’s a start, but, as we’ve said previously, is simply not enough— and we’re not the only ones who think so. Some estimates, such as the Climate Interactive Scoreboard above, show that current climate pledges put us on a path to at least another 3.5 C of warming (that’s almost 8 F).

This has caused preeminent climate scientist Jim Hansen of NASA to say he hopes the negotiations at Copenhagen will fail, so that we will have to start over and write a brand new climate treaty.

I’m not one to call for failure, but I am one to call for leadership. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for deeper cuts from both Britain and the EU. Is it time for Obama to do the same?

Let’s examine the facts. According to a study by McKinsey and Company (a consulting firm who does efficiency studies for Fortune 500 companies– you know, real Communist Party sympathizers </sarcasm>) the US can reduce approximately 35% of our carbon emissions at a net cost savings.

In the above chart, you see all of our emissions sources on the horizontal axis, and costs going up and down. Everything below the X-axis is something that will save us money. And, if you notice, the cost savings are pretty massive– almost massive enough to cancel out the costs of tackling the other 65% of our emissions.

And McKinsey, being the conservative types they are, are only using technology we have in hand: NOT any of the next-gen fuel cells, not even the super-high efficiency photovoltaics that are currently being developed, not any energy storage mechanism, not even the solar-impregnated roofing tiles that are now being produced— because this study came out in March of 2009 and Dow didn’t go into production on the roofing tiles until October.

According to the IPCC, we need to cut our emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 — or about 35% from current levels. If that same 35% if the sweet spot where we can save ourselves money, then why in the world are we not doing this? I’m willing to bet the entirety of my net worth in 2020 that by then our technology will have improved such that we can get MORE greenhouse gas reductions at a net cost savings. I have yet to find anyone who will take that bet against me — because to do so is to bet against American ingenuity and spirit. Having a long term cap on carbon consistent with scientific standards can only further drive our economy into the places we already want it to go: clean, non-polluting, renewable energy and a new generation of green jobs.

Also, notice what is included in these strategies: compact fluorescent light bulbs, building shells, combined heating and power. Notice what ISN’T in the strategies that save money: big giveaways for nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration projects (which even when their carbon savings are calculated, they are far from the panaceas the nuke and coal industries claim them to be). The answers are fairly simple and relatively low-tech. Should our new mantra be “weatherstrip, baby, weatherstrip”?

I asked rhetorically why we’re not setting a 35% goal. The answer is the big polluters, energy companies, and especially the petroleum industry are worried that people will use less energy. More efficiency means we are burning less oil, less coal, etc — and this concept scares some of them out of their wits. Which is why you seem them trying to confuse and frighten people with their climate change denier junk science and bogus economic studies predicting gloom and doom if we do anything to curb our appetite for sweet, sweet fossil fuels.

Stand up to these bozos. Every time you hear a dire prediction about job loss or GDP growth, ask to see the study. I can guarantee you that if you actually read them, the study will show robust economic growth with only a small impact of a carbon cap. Most likely their economic models also fail to model all portions of any proposed federal policy. They’re the real ones trying to use “tricks” to “hide the decline.”

This is the time for real American leadership. We should set strong goals because economics says we should and science demands we must. When JFK challenged the nation to go to the moon by the end of the decade, he said “Why does Rice play Texas?” (ask Citizen Sarah, our resident Rice grad)

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” And yet, if only JFK had been faced with the ease of reducing our greenhouse gas pollution, he could have chosen to cut our emissions 35% not because it is hard, but because it is easy.

If only all of our problems were so easy to solve.

Andy Wilson is a climate change researcher/organizer in Public Citizen’s Texas office. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenAndy


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, cleaner cars, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.