Two political storms, Europe storm in a teacup, US in a coffee cup

The two major political stories of this week could not be more different, with the EU trying to get all 28 countries to commit to a zero emissions 2050 target, while Donald trump’s US administration plans to roll back rules from the Obama era couched in changes to the Environmental Protection Agency Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The Trump maneuver does little more than allow coal plants to pollute more. The sad fact is that neither of them will have much effect whatsoever.

The thing about Europe is that it works only on a 100% vote basis, in that any single country can veto. It effectively becomes a barter system. Those disadvantaged by a new rule, ask for some cash, compensation, help – to make it work and that’s entirely what has happened in Europe with the Czech Republic and Poland bound to vote down the ruling, being heavily dependent upon coal for their energy in Poland’s case 98%, and in the Czech Republic’s case, there are coal billionaires. In the final event Estonia and Hungary also voted with them, blocking the move. So despite more countries committing separately to zero carbon by 2050, no sudden moves can be announced Europewide, although gentle pressure will mount on Poland and others, to shift their stance over time.

In the US yes there is an argument that the Trump rule change will let coal plants engage in less environmental protection and while it may create the odd poisoned groundwater problem, and slow renewables slightly, but it is not going to save coal. It is already an industry which has had the stuffing pulled out of it by renewables, and Irena (International renewable energy agency) has just said that a further 900 GW of coal has been identified as likely to become uneconomic by 2020.

This is the first time that we have seen a US government department issuing data that we found impossible to believe – a kind of faked, fake news. It claims that the ACE rule will somehow, magically, mean less CO2 emissions from burning the same amount of coal, when it is clear as day that the reverse will happen – but only for as long as it takes for these plants to go bust.

This week’s move comes from a review of the Obama rules via a Trump Executive Order following challenges to Obama’s rulings from some states, trade associations, and labor unions. The Obama Clean Air Act was stayed by the Supreme Court in 2016 and this effectively replaces that.

“Today, we are delivering on one of President Trump’s core priorities: ensuring the American public has access to affordable, reliable energy in a manner that continues our nation’s environmental progress,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and a known coal lobbyist. “When ACE is fully implemented, we expect to see US power sector CO2 emissions fall by as much as 35% below 2005 levels.” Laughable.

The ACE rule establishes emissions guidelines for US States to use when developing plans to limit carbon dioxide and mostly identifies ideas from the coal industry, about improving the temperature of the furnace as it generates electricity. Each State will have 3 years to submit plans.

Also States can take a particular source’s remaining useful life and other factors into account when establishing a standard of performance for that source. In other worlds, US States that genuinely want to run coal plants, can say “Well this plant is old, so it’s bound to give off more CO2,” and say that it is fine with it. It is a polluters charter, but it cannot change the economic price at which coal can produce electricity.

The EPA says that by 2030 the ruling will reduce CO2 emissions by 11 million short tons, reduce SO2 emissions by 5,700 tons, reduce NOx emissions by 7,100 tons, reduce PM2.5 emissions by 400 tons and reduce mercury emissions by 59 pounds. If true, these are drops in the ocean, but unlikely to be true.

Back in Europe this week Germany, Greece, Italy and Slovakia joined the UK and a growing list of EU countries aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, and this is in turn applies pressure that at some future EU summit, it will adopt the idea of making this an EU Directive – which members HAVE to put into law.

Incoming EU presidency holder Finland recently announced that it will aim for net-zero emissions by 2035 and to become a carbon-negative country by 2050.

There are already 18 of the 28 members of the EU which have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. There were just 8 members who had done this at the last Summit in March. This is an idea who’s time is soon to come, but not quite yet.

Eastern European countries seem less keen on agreeing to such promises, in particular Poland and the Czech Republic but also Bulgaria and Croatia who are in a not much better position. All of the headlines from the conference will likely be in allocating all the European Commissioner roles, so don’t expect this to emerge into the general news pile.

Italy this week has considerably improved its renewables Bona Fides by announcing an auction scheme for renewables worth €5.4 billion mostly in grid scale solar. This was held back from January and has just been given the go ahead by Brussels. EV charging systems will be part and parcel of this package of generation auctions.

The Commission had to review it primarily because of concerns that the cleaner energy types were getting subsidies even though they were cheaper than rival fossil fuel generation – and the rules were adjusted slightly to ensure this could not be the case.

But again the truth here is that not one of the major EU countries is yet in line with its 2030 commitments for emissions, so replacing these aims, with something further off in 2050, is hardly conducive to any concrete changes to country policy – making the entire commitment to zero emissions rather pointless. The European Parliament has already voted to increase the EU’s 2030 emission cuts target to 55% when it met in March.

There is talk that a €5 billion fund will be put together to help the Eastern economies wean themselves off coal, making Poland and the Czech republic the low hanging fruit that can be “paid” to come to heel.