Peak emissions now – the right choice for Obama

by | Mar 5, 2009

Yesterday, I put some words into Barack Obama’s mouth – re-jigging JFK’s famous ‘man on the moon’ speech as a call for an immediate peak to global emissions.

Setting a goal that emissions should never rise again, is something I have argued we should do now, rather than hoping we’ll simply be braver or more desperate in five or ten years’ time.

Originally, I suggested this should be a major plank for civil society campaigning – and I still think it should be. But governments can play too. Let’s look at the policy from vantage point of the Obama administration.

  • At the moment, US emissions are very high. Each American emits more than twice as much as a European, four times as much a Chinese citizen, and thirteen times as much an Indian. Total US emissions have risen by 26% since 1990 – the Kyoto baseline. Had it ratified Kyoto, it should have been well on the road to a 7% cut from 1990 by now.
  • Obama has now committed to forcing emissions back down to 1990 levels by 2020 – the bare minimum the US can get away with if developed countries are to meet their collective goal of achieving a 25-40% cut in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels. 
  • Legislation is promised for this year, with the aim of getting a bill through Congress at least before Copenhagen.

Internationally, the US remains in quite a weak position on climate – another toxic legacy left by the Bush administration. But there are opportunities. Because the US is the least energy efficient of any rich country, its early cuts are going to come quite easily. Indeed, McKinsey reckons that 40% or more of US abatement over the next twenty years will bring net economic benefits.

The tanking economy, meanwhile, has one silver lining. With the economy in freefall (GDP was down 6.2% on an annualized basis in the last quarter of 2008, and the Fed thinks things are getting worse), energy demand will be falling too. That means an immediate reduction in carbon emissions.

Then, as the economy sheds capacity, the dirtiest and least efficient industrial plant is going to be shut down first, bringing long term economic and environmental benefits. This is a process that the right package of incentives could reinforce (time to revive Dieter Helm and Cameron Hepburn’s work on carbon contracts, perhaps).

At the same time, the US will continue to reap dividends from last year’s flirtation with high energy prices – a spike that sent many people out to buy smaller cars or increase the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses. These capital investments have long life cycles and will not be reversed now fuel prices are low.

Then there’s the green stimulus, which HSBC estimates at $112bn or 12% of Obama’s trillion dollar rescue deal. When the US finally sees the green shoots of recovery, this cash should push the economy onto a (slightly) lower carbon trajectory.

Finally, around 2011 or 2012, just a blink of the eye away, the US climate bill will kick in (assuming it passes – if not all bets are off). Revenue from a carbon market is already in 2012’s budget, while new energy efficiency standards should also have begun to bite by then.

So, domestically:

  • The US is never going to find it as easy to make emissions cuts as it will in the next couple of years. And anything achieved now means less work to do in the future.
  • If it misses this opportunity and it just defers the pain of meeting any target. Plus policy measures in a few years time will be working against the grain rather than with it (growth will have started, government spending will be dropping etc.).
  • Most importantly, there are huge political incentives to get emissions moving in the right direction before the climate bill starts to bite. Obama needs the bill to reinforce a trend that is well established – not try and jump start one just as he positions himself for a second term.

Internationally, meanwhile, Obama aims to lead – and he’s right to want to get out in front of the debate. But to do so he needs to bring something fresh to the party. A call for an immediate peak to global emissions would, at a stroke, give the world a scientifically robust, stretching, but realistic climate change goal to work to.

Obama knows how to craft a good narrative. With a strong mission (thus my ‘man on the moon’ analogies), he can bundle together (i) green recovery; (ii) US action at home; and (iii) a fair share of the burden for all countries. He’d be reframing climate as a now problem – injecting the pace and urgency that can be condified in the Copenhagen text.

Let’s finish with what the man himself is saying about climate (from a real speech this time, not my JFK pastiche).

[…] These urgent dangers to our national and economic security are compounded by the long-term threat of climate change, which if left unchecked could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe…

Year after year, decade after decade, we’ve chosen delay over decisive action.  Rigid ideology has overruled sound science.  Special interests have overshadowed common sense.  Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results…

Now America has arrived at a crossroads.  Embedded in American soil and the wind and the sun, we have the resources to change.  Our scientists, businesses and workers have the capacity to move us forward.  It falls on us to choose whether to risk the peril that comes with our current course or to seize the promise of energy independence.  For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change…

Finally, we will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead.  To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition.  I’ve made it clear that we will act, but so too must the world.  That’s how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists.  And that’s how we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part, just as we are now willing to do ours.

It’s time for America to lead, because this moment of peril must be turned into one of progress.  If we take action, we can create new industries and revive old ones; we can open new factories and power new farms; we can lower costs and revive our economy.  We can do that, and we must do that.  There’s much work to be done.  There is much further for us to go.

But I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice.  America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet.  We will not be put off from action because action is hard.  Now is the time to make the tough choices.  Now is the time to meet the challenge at this crossroad of history by choosing a future that is safer for our country, prosperous for our planet, and sustainable.

Build policy on science – check. Avoid delay – check. Turn a threat into an opportunity – check.

Barack Obama wants to show he is prepared to make tough choices. If that’s true, then he needs other countries to take a similarly ballsy approach. That’s why he needs declare the carbon age over. And tell the world it’s time for peak emissions now.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Created in partnership with: COVID-19 marks a turning point in the 21st century.​ Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. ​But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a...

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements:  Firefight better – getting the emergency response...