President Barack Obama gave a high-profile speech this afternoon at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to announce a massive new government plan designed to address climate change. But the plan, details of which were released by the White House on Tuesday morning ahead of the president's speech, won't do much to help fix the problems of pollution and global warming, and may actually make things worse overall, according to independent climate experts.
"It's amazing how little this all actually does," said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. "In many ways, this makes things worse." Jacobson, who has spent years researching the link between air pollution and human health in the United States, points out that the White House's seemingly bold objective to curb carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 actually equates to cutting about one-fortieth of all pollution produced by the US energy sector each year. "The numbers are so trivial, it's almost like a gimmick," he said. Another part of the White House's plan, to increase the amount of renewable energy projects on federal lands enough to power 6 million homes by 2020, is "embarrassingly trivial," in a country of over 130 million housing units, said Jacobson.
Jacobson also takes specific issue with part of the president's plan that calls for the US Energy Department to provide $8 billion in loan guarantees to what the plan calls "advanced fossil energy projects." Jacobson and other experts say that this term refers to one idea in particular: installing new equipment to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and attempting to pump it back into underground storage areas, where it won't get into the atmosphere for many years. Such a technique could reduce between 85-90 percent of carbon emissions from coal plant smokestacks, according to estimates of companies pursuing it.
The idea sounds good in principle, but the science behind it remains largely unproven. "There's not even a single commercialized coal-with-carbon-capture plant" in the US, Jacobson pointed out. Indeed, several companies have abandoned attempts to build such plants in recent years after deciding the costs would be too high and incurring opposition from environmental groups. But several US carbon capture projects are still in development right now, including a Department of Energy-funded attempt to build one ethanol-powered carbon capture plant in Decatur, Illinois.