Environmental Timetables Built for Style, Not Substance

Cutting emissions, reducing use of foreign oil, using more renewable energy requires a lot more than just goals

Timetables are taboo in President Bush’s strategy for the Iraq war, but in energy and environmental policy, they’re as trendy as can be.

Of these, the Kyoto Protocol is perhaps the best-known environmental timetable: under the original Kyoto agreement, by 2008-2012, participating countries were expected to cut greenhouse gas emission levels to (on average) 5 percent below 1990 baseline emissions levels.

More than a dozen U.S. states have already set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets-though no two states have set the same timetable. The most common initial goal-reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2010-is shared by many of the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

California, seemingly always a trend-setter in environmental regulations, plans to reduce greenhouse emissions to 80 percent below 1990’s levels by the year 2050. That number is considered the benchmark by many in the environmental community.

Also popular with policymakers these days are timetables and goals for renewable energy generation by state electric utilities. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia already have these standards, but again, there are wide deviations in the specifics of each law.

When Oregon joins Minnesota and New Hampshire, as it is expected to soon, the three states will share the same renewable energy standard. Each state will mandate that utilities produce 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, a goal promoted nationally through the “25x’25” campaign of the Energy Future Coalition. The challenge of meeting that goal is different for each state: Minnesota currently has about 3.5 percent renewable energy generation and plans to meet most of the rest of the goal through conservation and wind power; in New Hampshire, where renewable electricity generation capacity is already at 16 percent, the University of New Hampshire predicts that the state will soon be exporting excess wind energy to neighboring New England states.

The 25x’25 campaign loses a little credibility when you notice that the coalition’s website still promotes a study it commissioned from the Rand Corporation last year that concluded their renewable sources goals could be achieved “at little or no additional expense.” The RAND researchers were forced to withdraw their study when they discovered serious errors in their estimates just a couple of weeks after the report’s release.

Abroad, environmental timetables are even more dramatic. Leaders in Iceland have declared their nation will be completely oil-free by 2050. Sweden aims to be oil-free even sooner, by 2020. Norway is drafting plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050, Costa Rica by 2030.

Such goals are rarer domestically, but there are stand-outs here, too: the city of Austin, Texas, plans to be “carbon-neutral” in just over 12 years, by 2020. That will entail powering the city’s facilities with renewable energy, converting the city’s fleet of almost 5,000 vehicles to electric power and non-petroleum fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout municipal operations and providing incentives for individuals and businesses to do the same, capping carbon dioxide emissions from the city’s utilities and generating 30 percent of electricity from renewable sources, constructing new homes with energy-saving and energy-generating capability and offsetting the balance of municipal carbon emissions through mitigation projects. Austin Mayor Will Wynn admits that to make it all happen, “We’re having to bank on-cross our fingers-technology advances.”

If the eye-catching numbers in some of these timetables seem like they’re built for style and short on substance, it’s because they are.

A case in point is President Bush’s so-called “energy security” initiative, cleverly titled “Twenty in Ten.” Sounds simple-the U.S. will cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. But what is actually intended by the policy is far less concise. Bush says he wants to see the substitution of approximately 15 percent of projected gasoline consumption in 2017 with alternative fuels, plus reduction in gasoline demand through higher fuel economy standards. That would mean holding gasoline consumption more or less steady for the next decade, while supplementing it with fuel derived from corn and possibly coal, and mandating that automakers sell more expensive, more fuel-efficient cars.

Like many of the popular environmental timetables being established right now, it conceals controversial issues-such as what actually qualifies as a “renewable” or “alternative” fuel-under convenient slogans. In terms of practicality, the Sierra Club should support the plan. But Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope calls the President’s mandate “magic wand stuff.”

Mandates based on politics rather than science almost always make better sound bites than they do sound policy.

Participants in the Kyoto climate agreement are infamously off-track for meeting their initial targets. Among western European countries, despite caps intended to stabilize emissions levels, carbon dioxide emissions have continued to grow since 1990 (an increase of 2.8 percent from 1990-2003 according to a World Bank report last month).

Research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory last year found that renewable energy standards in Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Nevada were plagued with “chronic under-compliance.” Meanwhile in Maine, Maryland and other states the renewable energy standards were ineffective because they were set too low to begin with (essentially just supporting pre-existent renewable energy generators, not increasing renewable energy generation).

And while objective measurement of environmental progress is laudable, there is bias written in to even the simplest of measures, such as the selection of 1990 as a baseline for greenhouse gas emissions inventories in California. Consider that in 1990, California was at its peak in terms of its share of the national economy, while the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse.

When you start to look at these energy goals practically, things get really dicey. If the United States, as a whole, committed to the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target set in Sonoma County, California-ratcheting down emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2015-we would need serious help or risk serious economic consequences. The last time U.S. emissions were at that level was in the mid-1960s.

In 1967 the U.S. population was just passing the 200 million mark. In 2015, the U.S. population is expected to be 325 million. That means that in just the next few years, we’d need to fit a population almost two-thirds bigger, and a Gross Domestic Product more than four times bigger (real GDP in 1967 was $3.5 trillion; in 2006 it was $11.6 trillion, 2015’s GDP is projected in the range of $15 trillion), into a carbon footprint we outgrew 40 years ago. (In this case, that carbon footprint-the measure of all our activities in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas produced-doesn’t even account for the carbon-intensive industries we rely on outside of the United States, sort of like weighing ourselves without both feet on the scale.)

Clearly, these kinds of timetables offer powerful inspiration, but the rhetoric often has little relationship to either strategy or practicality.

The rising consciousness concerning global environmental issues has generated a welcome surge in long-term thinking about natural resources and our economy, and moved political leaders to stake unprecedented bold claims in the frontier of the future. However, with timetables for mandates stretching not just past the current administration’s tenure but to 2025 and beyond, it will be vitally important to extend the timeline for accountability to match our ambition.