Image credit: Flickr/jmtimages
by Suzanne Goldenberg
Barack Obama is raising expectations of swift action on the environment - possibly within his first few days in the White House.
At one of two green balls for this year's inauguration, environmentalists were already describing Obama as America's first green president.
He used his last appearance before the start of celebrations for his inauguration on Tuesday to talk up his clean energy plans at an Ohio factory that makes components for wind turbines.
"A renewable energy economy isn't some pie-in-the-sky, far-off future," Obama said during the factory visit. "It's happening all across America right now. It's providing alternatives to foreign oil now. It can create millions of additional jobs and entire new industries if we act right now."
Such early gestures, the appointment of a team of respected scientists and experienced legislators, have fueled anticipation of what Obama might do in the White House.
Environmentalists praise Obama for putting the environment at the heart of his economic renewal plan - part of the solution to the crisis, rather than the source.
They say there has been little sign that Obama has scaled back his thinking in response to the economic crisis.
"Obama gets it," said Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon congressman who is a member of the house committee on energy independence and global warming.
However, Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins, of the Breakthrough Institute, argue that as the recession has deepened, Obama has been relatively silent on cap and trade emissions schemes similar to the one operating in Europe in which companies can trade permits to emit carbon dioxide. "With green jobs now positioned as 'the solution' to both the economy and the climate, Obama has cover to take the politically expedient route of short-term green stimulus while ignoring serious climate policy," they write.
"Obama has made it increasingly clear that public investment is his preferred climate policy mechanism. What Obama has not made clear is whether or not he will embrace the type and scale of investments necessary to seriously confront the climate challenge."
So what can be reasonably expected of the man who was the most strongly environmental contender for the White House in US history?
On the campaign trail, Obama supported a 15% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 80% by 2050. He embraced the goal of obtaining 10% of America's electricity from renewable resources by 2012, and 25% by 2025.
Environmentalists see that translating into results almost immediately after Obama is sworn in with a number of executive orders overturning some of the most controversial decisions by George Bush.
These could include:
• Directing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide. The Bush administration refused to act on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling giving the agency regulatory and enforcement power.
• Granting authority to California and 16 other states to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions
• Ordering a ban on mountain-top removal coalmining
Next on the agenda is an economic stimulus package which Obama hopes to pass within the first three weeks. Environmentalists expect a heavily green component in the $775-825bn package.
"I think we are going to see a very large infrastructure proposal with a very strong green component - everything from putting solar panels on the rooftops of government buildings to providing tax credits to home owners to make their homes more energy efficient to retrofitting older buildings to beginning to stress mass transit," said Michael Moynihan.
Obama's stimulus plan revealed last week calls for doubling the production of renewable energy in three years. It envisages energy-efficient retrofits for 75% of government office buildings, and weather-proofing some 2m homes.
He said the plan would create nearly half a million new jobs in production of wind turbines and solar panels, and the building industry.
An early draft of the bill showed about $54bn in measures on weatherisation and retrofitting.
Democratic leaders in Congress hope to pass the package by February 20.
In the longer term, environmentalists were cheered by Hillary Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state last week. They see Clinton as a strong advocate for reaching a successor to the Kyoto protocol. "We have got a whole series of people who want to move in the same direction as the president-elect," said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Environment Group.
But the picture is mixed on domestic cap and trade legislation. Environmentalists who are in regular contact with Obama's advisers say his White House would be prepared to consult widely with Congress.
However, while the Democratic leadership is squarely behind cap and trade legislation, Republicans as well as some Democrats from coal-producing states are not behind a domestic cap and trade regime. Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker, said earlier this month that she was not hopeful of passing legislation this year.
This piece originally appeared in the Environment section of The Guardian, at which Suzanne Goldenberg is a U.S. correspondent.
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