A Comparison of the Obama and Clinton Environmental Policies

I was planning on writing two environmental blogs; one detailing Obama’s plan and one detailing Clinton’s, so people could have a good understanding of the differences.  There was just one problem:

Obama and Clinton have very similar environmental plans.  In fact, they’re almost identical, with a few notable exceptions.  They both want to achieve about the same automobile gas mileage standards over almost the same period of time (Clinton would legislate an average 55 gpm compared to Obama’s 50 gpm, but would take four more years to accomplish it) by providing various economic assistance to develop technology to achieve their goals, both would create energy matrixes which produce 25% of our electricity by renewable resources by 2025, both would modernize our power grids by incorporating a “10 Smart-Grid” program, both would create “Green Job Corps” (Obama’s words) to create “green-collar” jobs (Clinton’s words) and environmentally friendly innovation, both would reduce carbon emission by 80% by 2050, and both would use the G-8 summit to promote global environmental policy.  Further, both would spend large amounts of money and resources to increase production of bio-fuels, such as bio-diesel and ethanol.  Bio-fuels are great for the environment because the carbon released by their burning was created a short time ago, allowing the earth’s carbon cycle to adjust much more quickly and effectively to their releases.  If an ear of corn is grown, nature “knows” it’s carbon is going to be released somehow; whether it’s by decay, digestion, or energy consumption, nature “knows” it’s coming.  The problem with fossil fuels is that nature “forgets” the carbon is there (since it’s been buried underground for millions of years, or 6,000 years if you’re a creationist), and when it’s burned off the modes to reintroduce it back into the cycle are not present, resulting in an unhealthy build-up of excess carbon.  This excess is the main cause of global warming.

One major agreement which I am pleased to see is a focus on “cap and trade” policies to reduce emissions from industry.  Both plans use this as a cornerstone to decrease pollutants and both plans are more or less identical.  Cap and trade can be a very valuable tool to decrease emissions by providing economic incentives for industries to do so.  Essentially these incentives take two forms.  First, companies which invest in conservation and innovation to decrease emissions are rewarded financially by selling the emissions they are allotted but not producing, providing extra profit to the company.  Secondly, companies which do not invest in conservation or innovations to decrease emissions are penalized by being forced to purchase shares of emission allowances.  If there are no shares available or the company does not purchase any, they pay a steep fine.  Since shares are auctioned, the prices of the shares become higher as less become available, further rewarding responsible companies and further penalizing irresponsible ones.

The common complaint against this system is the obvious illusion that companies which are polluting irresponsibly are allowed to circumvent law by just purchasing more pollution rights.  However, good cap and trade policy does not allow this, because geographical areas have pollution limits.  If the city of Chicago, for example, decides that “x” tons of an air pollutant is acceptable, than it doesn’t really matter if company A produces ½x-y and company B produces ½x+y.  As long as (½x-y) + (½x+y) = x, the effects of the pollution is the same as if they both just produced ½x (obviously there are more than two companies producing the pollutants; the point is total amount of pollutants is at or below the limit deemed allowable).  Both candidates plans ensure that this is the case by requiring 100% of the pollution credits to be auctioned on the market, removing the capabilities of companies to “account” their way around the total pollution allowances for any particular geographical area.  And as time goes on, the total pollution allowance is decreased, resulting in lower amounts of air pollutants.  If the system works in this fashion and is stringently enforced, it works very, very well.

However, there are some significant differences which I would like to discuss.  This is by no means exhaustive; there are some minor differences which are interesting but not necessarily important enough to include in this already-too-long comparison.  For example, both candidates have goals to replace incandescent lights.  Obama’s plan would seem to phase out incandescent bulbs more quickly, but Clinton’s plan would seem to increase use of LEDs.  Is this difference going to save the world?  Probably not.

I will say that, from an environmentalist’s view, Obama’s plan seems to be much more complete.  While Hillary Clinton seems to focus almost solely on the role of energy in our environment, Obama lays out “EPA” solutions.  That is, he provides plans to ensure air and water that is clean and free from toxins, as well as plans to preserve our lands and natural treasures.  Though I’m sure Clinton cares about these issues, they are not mentioned in her environmental policy.  Since I am personally concerned about the environment first, and energy policy second, this is pretty important to me.

A difference in which Hillary Clinton seems to be ahead of Barack Obama is forcing all new federal buildings to be “carbon neutral” by the end of 2009.  Obama says he will force all new federal buildings to be “zero emissions” by 2025.  That is a big difference in timing; though a cynic could say the difference illustrates that achieving that goal by 2009 is not possible, I believe we have the technology to accomplish this goal if we allocate enough resources to achieve it.  However, Obama’s plan does actually have its benefits over Hillary’s.  Obama is going to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings by 40% over the next five years, and that coupled with the longer time for “zero emissions” goals is going to make the manufacture of new federal buildings much cheaper.  He’s going to use this saved money to retrofit existing buildings with energy-saving updates to decrease energy use in these buildings by 25% over the next five years and ensure 30% of the federal government’s electricity comes from renewable resources by 2020.  Hillary Clinton claims the federal government pays $5.6 billion a year to “heat, cool, and power” federal buildings, so the savings would be $1.4 billion every year.  Hillary Clinton also vows to “install cost-effective retrofits in all federal buildings within five years.”  However, she does not say whether this would begin or be completed within this time, and gives no indication as to what her goals would be in regards to energy savings over this time.  A stated goal is important; it gives an objective measure for success as well as provides a definitive destination to strive toward.

But the biggest benefit Obama’s plan has over Clinton’s is Obama goes farther by striving to achieve zero emissions in all American buildings by 2030.  To accomplish this, he is going to make a national goal of making all new buildings 50% more energy efficient and all existing buildings 25% more energy efficient with the next ten years.  Hillary Clinton makes no goals to ensure that all buildings are carbon neutral in any time frame, and does not provide any specific goals for energy efficiency over any time frame, either.  Clinton claims there are 500,000 federal buildings.  Obviously, this is a small portion of all American buildings.  Making all building in the whole country carbon neutral by 2030 is certainly a much bigger energy saver than making all new buildings carbon neutral by 2009 and helping to subjectively improve energy efficiency in existing federal buildings over the next five.

However, if I stake the claim that specifics matter more than vague promises, I must give Clinton some credit here.  Though she does not give any specific goals to increase energy efficiency for existing buildings, she gives much more specific policy goals on how to achieve it, including spending money to “weatherize” 20 million low-income homes over 8 years, creating standards for energy efficiency for types of appliances which currently do not have them, and creating a “Connie Mac” program to assist home owners with updating their homes.

Another positive aspect of Clinton’s plan is she would “require corporate disclosure of financial risks posed by global warming.”  In and of itself, this is pretty meaningless.  As I see it, the only real difference it would make is providing corporate admission that global warming is real and effecting stockholders and businesses in a tangible way.  Essentially it’s a way to win an argument against a small and ever decreasing portion of the population which still argues that decreasing the effects of global warming would cost more than its benefits would provide.  Plus, if a large portion of corporate America decides to claim there are no significant negative financial impacts it could actually help fuel the argument against improving global warming.  I don’t think that would happen, but it’s possible.  It could also minimize the already ignored impact of externalities, which are the environmental costs of an activity which do not show up in the cost of the product (such as destruction of a forest or extinction of a species of animal).

That being said, this seems like the first step in forcing companies to disclose financial statements regarding their impact on global warming.  Europe already does this; companies have to take cradle-to-grave responsibility for waste their products produce, which decreases wasteful packaging; increases conservation, reuse, and recycling programs (often paid for by the companies, since that’s cheaper than allowing consumers to throw their products away); increases manufacturing of goods made out of materials which could be conserved, reused, or recycled; and creates products which are more energy efficient.  This is a very important step in improving the environment which I feel the U.S. government must take.  Since no candidate seems to endorse the idea, at least this could begin that process by making companies provide a tangible link between business practices and the financial loss caused by harm to our environment.

The last thing which jumped right out at me is the difference in how Obama and Clinton would try to get energy companies to enact programs designed to improve energy efficiency.  Both campaigns state the obvious link between energy companies’ profits and the amount of energy used.  Clinton says she will help break this link by enacting regulatory legislation requiring energy companies to initiate or participate in energy efficiency programs and innovations.  This is good.  But Obama wants to enact policies allowing companies to make more money in the future by increasing energy efficiency then they currently make by higher energy consumption.  This is a much better plan.  It’s much easier to get companies to agree to a plan that provides real financial incentives than to ask them to take a financial hit because it’s the right thing to do.  It’d be nice if that wasn’t necessarily the case, but that’s capitalism and I see nothing wrong with forgoing punishing companies when we can  reward them financially for beginning to conduct business more responsibly.  Ultimately, it entices companies to work with the government, instead of against them, which saves precious time and money wasted waging legislative and legal battles against policies they (justifiably or unjustifiably) deem unfair.

Finally, I would love to compare the Obama, Clinton, and McCain plans on energy and the environment.  There’s just one problem.  McCain doesn’t seem to have any.  McCain’s website has a half a page “discussion” explaining he feels we have a moral obligation to be “proper caretakers of creation” but does not offer anything even resembling specifics on how to do so.  He also offers an eighty second video clip (including several seconds which shows his logo but no other visual or oral material) in which he states that he believes global warming does exist and we need to take responsible actions to confront it (again, no specifics).  Oh, and he also uses that time to say we were right not to sign the Kyoto Treaty and the U.S. should dictate the terms by which the rest of the world enacts global environmental policy.  He only uses the word “energy” twice, both in the same sentence:  “He has offered common sense approaches to limit carbon emissions by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear energy, to the market faster, reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy, and see to it that America leads in a way that ensures all nations do their rightful share.”  As Republicans go, I honestly believe he’s a forerunner on energy and the environment.  Of course, this is a party which believes “climate control” is adjusting the temperature of their air conditioner.  In fairness, he probably can’t mention responsible energy or environmental policy specifics without abandoning his base.  But we would expect more from the “Straight Talk Express,” wouldn’t we?

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3 Comments

Filed under environment, politics

3 responses to “A Comparison of the Obama and Clinton Environmental Policies

  1. 1dumblonde

    This is a very thorough analysis. I am sorry it took me so long to read it. I do think there are problems with biofuels, because not all are created equal. Ethanol from corn requires petroleum based fertilizers, I think (but correct that if I am wrong). This can cause a food shortage if corn is subsidized and produced mainly for biofuel. The green building issues are enormous. Thanks for posting this. I will probably need to read it again to digest it all.

  2. thegreatgeno

    I’m not sure about the petroleum-based fertilizers, but I do know there are a lot of problems; right now it does take more energy to make it than it produces and the pollution is actually higher during the winter than gasoline (though lower in the summer; not sure how that works). Current methods of producing corn-based ethanol is certainly not the long-term solution. However, the thing most people don’t think about is that increasing funds for ethanol should help innovate better ethanol solutions, such as crab-grass or using the parts of the corn that people don’t eat (i.e. the ears and stalk). That is assuming, of course, that the money is spent wisely and is not just a handout to mega-farmers (I could go on all day about farming subsidies).

    Biodiesel is one of the best solutions, because diesel actually burns cleaner than gas with modern technology and it provides use for products that would otherwise be wasted. Plus, diesel cars are more fun to drive. Unfortunately, diesel has a bad rep (left over from thirty years ago) and car manufacturers do not seem to embrace it.

    Ultimately, though, I would certainly agree we need to get away from gasoline and get to work on fuel cell, or just get away from combustion engines altogether.

    Thanks for the comment; I always love hearing from you!

  3. 1dumblonde

    Europeans are going to biodiesel, I hear. California has scaled back its call for hydrogen cell cars, but still is pushing automakers. Let’s hope with 12% of the car market California can make the push.

    More people should read this post.

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