Can President Obama really claim a leadership role in the energy transition?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty ImagesWith his climate change speech on Tuesday, President Obama wrote history. He wrote history because he highlighted what most people on this planet already knew: climate change is real! He referred to science, put the attention on those who are already experiencing climate change and pointed out that societies are already paying the price of inaction. President Obama wrote history because he emphasized the responsibility of the United States and other countries to act. He wrote history because he reminded Americans and the world that the US should be the leading nation that shapes the future.

But I am actually asking myself: Is this reason enough why the world should applaud President Obama now? Is confronting the climate change threat the bold leadership we urgently need in today`s world?

Indeed, Obama laid out the probably most forceful and promising US climate plan in years. It includes important policy instruments that will help reducing US carbon pollution. Directing EPA to complete regulation for new and existing fossil fuel power plants is a major step forward. Also with regards to the controversial Keystone pipeline the president threaded a needle in proclaiming that it should not be approved if it increases carbon pollution. Finally, the president signified promising ways forward to (1) support renewable, non-carbon based energy, (2) improve energy efficiency, (3) encourage Global South nations to meet growing energy demand through renewable energy, and (4) adapt to climate change impacts which are already unavoidable.

But is this not the bare minimum we can expect from our politicians? If we put Obama’s Climate Action Plan in perspective to what is happening elsewhere in the world: Why does he think America takes over a leadership role by implementing this plan?

While the world applauds Obama for his appropriate and necessary problem description I actually question the leadership role that he claims in the transformation. Because in a world with harmful 400 ppm, $775 billion subsidies annually in fossil fuels (number from 2012), collapsing ecosystems and climate migrants, only proving the existence of climate change, highlighting the responsibility to act and implementing measures that aim at reducing emissions is not enough. What our and future generations really need is a US president that implements policies to enable a transformational shift towards a future-just, inclusive and fair 100% renewable energy system. But on this end, Obama actually cautions that a renewable energy transition will be tough and switching off fossil fuels is not an option for the economy: “A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come […] this does not mean that we’re going to suddenly stop producing fossil fuels. Our economy wouldn’t run very well if it did. And transitioning to a clean energy economy takes time.” This is a typical approach of governments that act in the interest of the conventional energy system.

The most alarming part of his speech for me – and one which clearly unveils whose interests really motivate Obama – was the following:

“Here at Georgetown, I unveiled my strategy for a secure energy future. And thanks to the ingenuity of our businesses, we’re starting to produce much more of our own energy. We’re building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades — in Georgia and South Carolina. For the first time in 18 years, America is poised to produce more of our own oil than we buy from other nations. And today, we produce more natural gas than anybody else.”

Does Obama really think exploiting fossil fuel resources on US territory instead of importing them is the solution? Does he actually believe that it is an achievement to build the first nuclear power plant in more than three decades and that this is actually in line with the concept of a secure energy future? I see here a dangerous contradiction to his commitment at the beginning of his speech to “refuse to condemn […] [our] generation, and future generations, to a planet that’s beyond fixing”. It clearly reveals that the US builds on the conventional energy player to bring the necessary change.

Unfortunately, the world’s frontrunner countries in renewable energy have already proven him wrong. Germany for example has an electricity sector with a 23% share of renewable energy. Only 5% (German Renewable Energy Agency 04/2013) of the total investments come from the big energy utilities. The major part was leveraged by an enabling policy framework from private citizens, cooperatives and farmers. This is also true for Denmark. Local ownership was the centerpiece of building over 4,000 MW of wind power – sufficient for 28% of the country’s electricity use. Sharing ownership and designing the policy framework in a way that every citizen can invest in the future energy system let Danes focus on energy independence and the economy. 

We must be alerted by the language Obama uses in his speech. Talking about “clean” energy instead of “renewable” or “sustainable” energy is a clear imprint of the nuclear and gas industry. The same goes for focusing only on reducing carbon emissions in climate policy instead of looking at natural resource consumption and resource depletion as a whole.

I therefore ask Obama who the leaders are that he referred to in his speech when directing EPA to build on the leadership that many states, and cities, and companies have already shown.” Which states and cities does he have in mind when saying “more than 25 [states] have set energy efficiency targets. More than 35 have set renewable energy targets. Over 1,000 mayors have signed agreements to cut carbon pollution.”

If Obama had specifically pointed out leading US cities like San Francisco in California or Greensburg in Kansas that have set a 100% renewable energy target and are on track to achieve that, I would join the world in applauding him for his bold leadership and courage.

If he had announced measures that reflect the lessons learnt from renewable energy frontrunner countries and therefore empowered Americans to take control — with their votes and their dollars — of their own energy future, I would trust that the US President understands the urgency to act.

Instead, the ‘leaders’ he referred to are those who a) fulfill their minimum task by modernizing their power plants, and b) widen their portfolio in a world where dirty fuel sources become expensive and unpopular. The president actually says: “In fact, many power companies have already begun modernizing their plants, and creating new jobs in the process. Others have shifted to burning cleaner natural gas instead of dirtier fuel sources.”

I therefore question the leadership role that Obama claims when presenting his climate action plan – even though I agree that it includes necessary and important measures.  Leaders in the fight against climate change are indeed those who seriously take action in eliminating fossil fuels and committing to a 100% renewable energy future. A leader today can only be a person understands that a 100% renewable energy-based society does not compromise economic well-being but is a prerequisite for it. Because at the end of the day – as Obama said himself – “our generation will be judged by the inheritance we leave.”


This article was first published on
Photo credits: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Previous articleWhat Makes Solar Startups an Attractive Investment for Energy Companies?
Next articleUK Spending Review – what does it mean for sustainability?
Anna Leidreiter works as Policy Officer Climate and Energy at the World Future Council. In her position she coordinates the policy research and advocacy campaigns in the WFC Climate Energy team. In her main capacity Anna works on enabling policy frameworks for a global energy transition and pushes for 100% renewable energies. Besides that, Anna is member of the supervisory board of an energy cooperative in the North of Germany.

No posts to display