Why didn’t Obama push at COP 21 for natural gas to replace planned 2,240 coal power plants?

Bjorn Lomborg is a breath of fresh air in the climate debate, with his focus on practical, cost-effective strategies. When he blogs from Paris that COP 21 is doomed, we may not be surprised, but we should pay attention.

COP 21

Bjorn Lomborg, the “skepical environmentalist.”

“The Conference of Parties (COP21) is about feeling good: spending a lot of money to do very little good, and not about making the choices that will make any difference,” he wrote today.

The Danish environmentalist argues that 20 years of climate conferences and calls for “action” – and hugely expensive mitigation treaties – have failed spectacularly:

“These summits have failed for a pretty simple reason. Solar and wind power are still too expensive and inefficient to replace fossil fuels. The Copenhagen-Paris approach requires us to force immature green technologies on the world even though they are not ready or competitive. That’s hugely expensive and inefficient.”

While I generally agree with Lomborg on this point, there is a flaw in his argument.

Even if all or most of “green” technology is immature, expensive, and inefficient, there is still plenty that is a big improvement over what we currently use.

That was the point of my column yesterday, that the world can do a lot with the power generation and transportation technologies already at its disposal, specifically by adopting the Chevy Volt design for electric vehicles and by substituting a combination of natural gas, wind, and solar for coal power generation.

COP 21

Daniel Cohan, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering and Faculty Scholar at Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University.

Rice University climate scientist Daniel Cohan describes using natural gas to augment renewables as “speckled green” energy – “approaches that are not completely green, but in which natural gas enables more widespread, reliable, and affordable deployments of renewables.”

Cohan writes about the giant Ivanpah solar power plant in the California Mojave Desert, which uses natural gas as part of its solar thermal process, and uses more gas during cloudy days. Does this disqualify Ivanpah from being “green?”

Not according to Cohan.

“I believe using those fossil fuels synergistically with renewables offers great potential,” he writes. “…the rapidly dispatchable – that is, able to generate power on demand – and adjustable nature of natural gas power generators enable greater penetration of variable wind and solar on the grid while maintaining reliability.”

Cohan has just described the basic approach of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was launched this summer and is expected to mostly eliminate coal from the US power generation system, thereby reducing American CO2 emissions by 32 per cent by 2030.

COP 21

President Barack Obama during a recent tour of Alaska.

I argued in my Nov. 25 column that this strategy constitutes the American model for decarbonizing global electricity generation and that the President should vigorously promote it at COP 21, given there are 2,440 coal power plants in the global pipeline.

According to Lomborg, that appears not to have happened. Instead, delegates are chasing gauzy dreams of solar panels and wind turbines that are just not ready for primetime.

Which leads to the question, Why is President Obama not supporting on the world stage a strategy he is happily imposing on domestic power producers?

Why are American environmentalists not supporting the American model at COP 21 when they cheer it on in the form of the Clean Power Plan?

Lomborg is probably right, COP 21 will be a complete failure. And the failure will be not seizing the opportunity to push “speckled green” energy when the time was right to do so.

President Obama should wear that decision.