Long read: Sami Cheqrouni-Espinar writes about John Kerry’s proposals on new climate change legislation and how these have raised eyebrows and attracted criticism. What are the technical hurdles of implementing Kerry’s proposed policy and how have scientific experts responded?
In an interview with BBC journalist Andrew Marr on the Andrew Marr Show, John Kerry, first United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate made several points about the plans for decarbonisation in the United States.
- Future coal use in the United states
Kerry told Marr that the US was committed to phasing out the use of coal from the current energy mix, with 58 coal plants being identified for retirement by 2030. Kerry explained that there is a lack of financing to support new coal developments, not just in the US but also elsewhere. “The marketplace has made a decision about coal, you couldn’t build a new coal-fired power plant in the United States because you couldn’t finance it, nor even in Europe or other places”.
Kerry’s comments follow on from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s plans on tackling emissions which were announced in April of this year. This included: a ban on financing all new overseas coal projects; The announcement of new, more aggressive measures to combat growing carbon emissions include a carbon tax; a policy which was successfully implemented in Finland in 1990 and currently prices carbon at $126 per metric tonne of CO2.
The main cause of the decline in coal use comes from recorded data that coal is the single biggest cause of global temperature increase. Over the past decade, 256 coal plants have been retired in the United States in efforts to mitigate their adverse effects. When pressed for an exact timeline for the retirement schedule, Kerry could not specify an exact date but stated that coal retirements will occur “as soon as it’s feasible…We’re going to do what we need, to do our fair share of this and to take the leadership role and we are doing that now.” When pressed further about the possibility of the US eliminating coal from its energy supply, Kerry confessed the ultimate decision to do so would rest with current U.S. President, Joe Biden.
The burning of coal releases numerous pollutants into the environment, including CO2, SO2, mercury, and NOx. The primary pollutant, CO2, excessively absorbs the Sun’s infrared radiation. Even though CO2 is essential in maintaining a temperate environment for life on Earth to thrive, rising CO2 levels have resulted in the trapping of excess heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. In addition to the environmental and atmospheric adversities, the burning of coal also poses a severe health threat to society and other biological life. In the UK, Legislations such as the well known Clean Air Act in 1993 as well as The ambient air quality directive which was introduced in 2008 set legal limits for concentrations in outdoor air of major air pollutants including NO2 as a means of tackling the impacts of air pollution caused by coal.
- Energy consumption
When the interview turned to energy consumption, Marr pointed out that US citizens produced, on average, 17.63 tonnes of CO2 annually. Kerry admitted that annual CO2 emissions per capita in the U.S were markedly high. In 2018, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published data on global consumption which highlighted that even though the U.S makes up only 4% of the world’s population, its energy consumption accounted for 17% of the total world primary consumption (energy which has not been subjected to any transformation or conversion processes like oil, coal, wind etc.). The energy intensiveness of some sectors in the United States is appearing to grow. Marr added that agricultural emissions, which account for approximately 10% of emissions, are also swiftly rising. Though efforts have been made to curb emissions by improving productivity gains in crops (the ratio between the energy of the inputs to outputs of crops) and livestock, agricultural emissions are rising nonetheless. From 1990-2017, agricultural productivity increased by 43%, and the per capita emissions of the agricultural sector decreased by 15%. The efforts highlighted to improve crop yield have paid their dividends, despite the 12% increase in total agricultural emissions likely due to meeting the growing demands.
- Meat consumption
Leading on from Marr’s final point that agricultural emissions were increasing, Marr asked Kerry whether meeting the U.S. net-zero goals would mean advising Americans to eat less meat. Kerry affirmed that Americans would “not necessarily” need to commit to eating less meat, echoing the sentiments of former U.S President George W Bush that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period”. Bush made this point prior to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and it seems that Kerry is holding on to the notion ahead of COP 26 in Glasgow to be held soon. Kerry claimed, “I’m told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make (to get to near zero emissions) by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have”.
Several Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies are seen as important for net-zero emissions by 2050. These technologies include Negative emissions’ technologies’ (NET’s) or Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) and Direct Air Capture with Carbon Storage (DACCS). Decarbonising industrial processes such as steelmaking and concrete production (which account for 8% and 4-8% of total global CO2 production respectively) which are seen as vital in many industries is challenging. To offset the emissions, technologies like NET’s and DACCS are seen as important to offset the emissions produced in such processes. In 2019, the US government announced $110 million (approximately £79 million) in funding towards research and development for such technologies.The ‘special report on climate change and land ‘ published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in January of last year concluded that meat consumption would need to be drastically reduced to meet net-zero targets set for 2050, with the Committee on Climate Change specifying in their own report ‘Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK’ that meat consumption would need to fall by 20% for targets to be met. It was also stressed that the climate crises cannot be solved without making reductions in meat consumption.
Criticism and backlash:
Kerry’s faith in future technologies to help meet climate goals in the United States has attracted criticism, contradicting climate-focused policies. The main source of criticism from Kerry’s remarks has been from his point on future technologies being able to allow Americans to continue their current lifestyle, as well as the ambitious time frame set out to achieve this. Julian Allwood, Professor of engineering and geography at the University of Cambridge highlighted that with new energy-infrastructure technology invented so far, it has taken 30-100 years for an initial invention to reach 5% market penetration, suggesting any new energy technology proposed under the Biden administration would have to defy this trend to produce a significant impact between now and 2050.
Decarbonisation plans in the United States, as delivered by Kerry, show a positive shift in the action on climate change. The plans outlined to retire several dozen coal plants by 2030 reflect the United States’ alignment with the international consensus that coal use as an energy source should end immediately. Kerry’s acknowledgment of overconsumption in the United States also shows that changes to industry practices, in sectors like agriculture, will be essential to meet these goals. Kerry’s resistance to the idea of advocating reduced meat intake sheds light on the sensitive challenge in shifting cultural attitudes to meeting net-zero 2050. The United States is reliant on future technologies, however, there is no guarantee that they will be eventually actualised. This adds doubt to his claims and ultimately to the decarbonisation strategy in the U.S.
Written by Sami Cheqrouni-Espinar and edited by Diana Jorge.
Sami Cheqrouni-Espinar is a recent graduate in Mechanical Engineering with Renewable Energy. He is interested in energy policy, energy technologies and climate mitigation strategies.