Science & Environment

Obama plan gives 'hope' for Paris deal

Photovoltaic plant in Nevada Image copyright Ethan Miller
Image caption Some experts say the US now matches Europe in its ambition on clean energy

The UK government has welcomed President Obama's plan to cut greenhouse gases and boost clean power.

A spokeswoman for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said it would lift chances of a global deal at a Paris climate summit in December.

When asked if the US had now overtaken Europe in its ambition on climate she declined to comment.

And she declined to say why renewables were deemed affordable by the US but apparently unaffordable in the UK.

President Obama's Clean Power Plan is his strongest action so far on climate change. It increases a previous offer of a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 to a 32% drop.

The tone of his statements is at odds with the recent slew of cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy from the UK government.

British ministers recently insisted the UK will play its part in tackling climate change - but will no longer lead whilst other nations are refusing to follow.

This statement puzzled leading academics like Prof Jim Skea from Imperial College London, who judged the previous US offer of a 30% emissions cut to be roughly comparable to efforts made in Europe, including the UK.

EU officials also told BBC News they believed the US was approximately matching Europe in terms of effort.

A Decc spokeswoman declined to draw that comparison. She said: "The US' Clean Power Plan will add more momentum ahead of agreeing a new global, ambitious, and legally binding climate deal in Paris in December.

"It's difficult to do a crude comparison between the US and EU targets - there are different parameters. The US uses 2005 emissions levels as a base, and EU uses 1990 levels, but both are ambitious."

Expanding incentives

We asked Decc why President Obama was expanding incentives for renewable energy whilst the Chancellor was cutting support for renewables and even imposing a pollution tax on wind and solar.

The spokeswoman declined to comment.

But analysts warn that the UK will have future problems of affordability because the clean energy levy on bills disproportionately loads costs on to the poorest households.

Lord Stern, the former UK government chief economist, told BBC News it was impossible yet to be sure whether the government was watering down its previous commitments on climate change.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The new rules require every US state to have a plan for reducing CO2 emissions

This would not be clear, he said, until ministers revealed their new renewable subsidy regime in the Autumn to replace what he admitted was the "messy" current system of clean energy support.

But he said it was a "worrying sign" that the Chancellor has already obliged renewable industries to pay the Climate Change Levy - a carbon tax designed originally to promote those industries.

This change provoked a furious response from firms like Veolia which invested in renewables believing they would be exempt from the tax until 2023.

Counting costs

The campaign group Global Warming Policy Forum - influential in the Conservative media - has welcomed the government's changes in energy policy. It says the UK has led the world in cutting emissions for too long, and that energy bills are too high.

The industrial giant Siemens has urged the government to take party politics out of energy policy.

Comparing costs of renewables internationally is difficult. The World Energy Council cites Bloomberg research suggesting an indicative range of costs for onshore wind in the USA as $61-$136 per MWh.

Wind power is especially cheap in Texas and the Midwest, where wind is regular and population densities are low.

The UK range was $72-$74, making it the cheapest form of readily available clean energy in the UK.

The government has stopped supporting onshore wind, though, because it said wind turbines were spoiling the countryside.

Commenting on President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which sets out tighter curbs on dirty coal and bigger investments in renewable energy, Greenpeace UK's Executive Director John Sauven said: "President Obama's bold vision for a low-carbon future is leaving David Cameron's U-turn on clean energy looking even more parochial and small-minded.

"Whilst Obama is ready to defy internal opposition to push through a plan that's good for jobs, the economy, and the climate, Cameron is ready to sacrifice all these gains just to appease a few wind farm-hating backbenchers."

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