Political Planning for Change

Moustadam #9

This article is also available in Arabic
يمكن قراءة هذا المقال أيضاً باللغة العربية


The previous article of Moustadam explored how communities may be encouraged to engage in more effective sustainability practices. This article explores the other side of the equation, which involves top-down approaches towards sustainability. Planners, for example, can come up with creative plans for sustainability, but governments unfortunately often ignore them. It is therefore a very powerful statement when governments seek sustainable solutions and put out action plans for their implementation. This is particularly the case in the United States, which traditionally has shied away from pursuing strong national policies that aim at achieving higher levels of sustainability.

The White House released the President’s Climate Action Plan (PCAP) in June 2013. The action plan provides facts regarding global warming and climate change, and also discusses the costs and challenges that the United States is facing as a result of them. According to PCAP, extreme weather turbulences in 2012, as with hurricane Sandy, droughts, floods, and wildfires, cost the United States economy about $100 billion. PCAP’s direct objective is lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17 % by 2020 in relation to their level in 2005. PCAP also aims at lowering fossil fuel consumption, and it will stringently regulate coal-fueled power plants. Moreover, it will encourage investments and research in green energy.

Strengthening the economy with new green investments and new jobs is an indirect objective of this plan. Since 2009, the Obama administration has significantly increased investments in renewable energy through subsidies and direct government funding, as well as through providing public lands for renewable energy facilities, creating 17,000 new jobs in the process. PCAP is committed to doubling the current use of renewable energy by 2020 and enhancing the economy with more jobs and investments.

At the international level, PCAP suggests several goodwill initiatives to lead the United States as a positive contributor to global climate change through collaboration and negotiations between it and major world contributors to GHG emissions. The country with the highest GHG emissions in the world in 2008 was China (at 23 % of total emissions), followed by the United States (at 19 % of total emissions). Global emissions of CO2 are primarily a result of fossil fuel combustion. In 2011, global CO2 emissions were 34 GtCO2 (Giga or one billion tons of carbon dioxide), which is equivalent to 9.5 GtC (Giga tons of carbon). In that same year, the United States emitted 5.3 GtCO2, and China emitted 8 GtCO2. The world’s per capita CO2 emissions in 2011 were 4.5 tCO2 (tons of carbon dioxide). China’s per capita CO2 emissions were 5.92 tCO2, and the United States was running far ahead with 16.92 tCO2 per capita.

The United States is undoubtedly a huge contributor to worldwide GHG emissions. It therefore has an obligation to lower its contribution to global warming, and also has a responsibility to protect its citizens and cities from the effects of climate change. PCAP could be a first step towards tackling this issue, and, if implemented professionally, it may have a tremendous effect on shaping future policies relating to sustainability. The average American emits a huge amount of carbon every year, and changing his / her behavior is hard. Still, change can happen through raising awareness, which can be facilitated through encouraging strong and cooperative bottom-up grassroots organizations.

PCAP includes three major themes: bringing down carbon pollution; preparing for the impacts of climate change; and putting in place international efforts that aim at controlling the impacts of climate change. Each theme includes several actions that are evaluated using an opportunity prioritization matrix (Figure 1). The matrix is a tool for evaluating the degree of achievability of each action according to the value of its impact verses the ease of its implementation. It divides actions into four categories: quick wins, which are easy to implement with a high impact; Low hanging fruits, which are easy to implement, but have a low impact; must haves, which are hard to implement, but have a high impact; and money pits, which are hard to implement and have a small (and sometimes a negative) impact.

Positive actions featured in PCAP:

  1. Creating standards for carbon pollution from new and existing power plants is a positive step. Moreover, updating the Clean Air Act to include a controlling mechanism for carbon emissions is a must. The Clean Air Act has not been updated since 1990 (quick win). 
  2. Doubling the production of renewable energy is an easily achievable action, but will have a low impact on total GHG reductions since non-renewable sources still represent the vast majority of the energy supply. Renewable energy only amounted to 9.3 % of total energy consumption in the United States in 2012 (low-hanging fruit).
  3. Increasing the amount of investment in clean energy innovation will open the road for new technologies to replace heavy GHG emitting energy sources (must have).
  4. Fuel economy standards will have a huge effect on reducing GHG emissions resulting from transportation (quick win). Applying advanced transportation technologies - as with increasing the use of bio-fuels and electric cars - will also have a huge impact in terms of reducing GHG emissions (quick win).
  5. Increasing energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings can result in a significant decrease of about 11 % in emissions from homes and commercial buildings (quick win).
  6. An active collaboration between state governments and the federal government will increase the effectiveness of efforts aimed at GHG emissions reduction, and may exceed suggested targets (must have).
  7. The United States has a global obligation to lower its GHG emissions. It must attain this objective as quickly as possible (must have).

PCAP includes natural gas, coal, and nuclear as part of its clean energy investment strategy. It suggests natural gas as a “bridge fuel” from coal energy, and suggests the utilization of “clean coal” technologies to minimize the huge amount of CO2 that coal emits. It also promotes a safe and secure utilization of nuclear technology, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Referring and promoting natural gas, coal, and nuclear as clean energy may contradict and weaken this plan for the following reasons:  

  1. Natural gas is not a clean energy source. When burnt, it emits sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, though at lower levels than coal or oil. Moreover, the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracking poses huge threats to the environment and contaminates water sources (money pit).
  2. Coal emits two billion tons of CO2 yearly. The technologies of “clean coal” depend on burning coal with pure oxygen and then capturing and storing the carbon. These technologies have not been tested, and may not be implementable. Moreover, coal mining has drastic effects on the environment and on the people working in this industry. The cost of these effects more than counterbalances coal’s cheap price (money pit).
  3. Nuclear technology is not safe. This has been well proven following the Fukushima earthquake. Germany has decided to shut down its seventeen nuclear generators, and is heavily investing in renewable energy. Countries such as Russia and India are still building nuclear reactors, but the safety of these reactors is highly uncertain (money pit). The United States must reconsider its use of nuclear energy and replace it with much safer and renewable sources.

Suggested actions that may improve PCAP:

  1. A cap-and trade market or a carbon tax has proven to be the quickest and most effective method to reduce GHG emissions. Sweden, for example, was able to reduce its carbon emissions by 20 % from 1996 to 2012 by implementing a carbon tax system and investing the collected taxes in phasing out fossil fuels from the electricity grid. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) successfully implemented a cap-and-trade system to control acid rain in the 1990s. Applying a similar system to control carbon emissions will even overtake the 17 % aim of GHG emissions reduction suggested in PCAP (quick win).
  2. Coal powered plants should be phased out since coal is not a clean energy source (must have).
  3. The major two emitters of GHG in the United States are electricity (33%) followed by transportation (28 %), then industries, buildings, and agriculture (39%). When it comes to transportation, PCAP suggests easily-implementable targets that focus on important issues such as fuel consumption, but it ignores the obvious dependency on cars in the United States. The plan must incorporate building green transit systems across the country, and building programs to lower the dependency on car usage (must have).
  4.  PCAP must include investments in grassroots organizations to promote and engage communities to be more sustainable. Americans are responsible for the highest per capita CO2 emissions in the world. Supporting non-profits involved in sustainability will bring in a great social benefit towards building awareness and education regarding sustainable lifestyles (quick win).
  5. At the international level, the United States should consider an energy exchange agreement with neighboring countries. For example, Norway and Germany have signed an agreement to exchange hydropower from Norway with wind and solar power from Germany. Such a project will establish a new system for global energy exchange that can lead to a transformation away from fossil fuels.

Although PCAP is timidly addressing the United States’ high GHG emissions, it still provides a reasonable start for changing attitudes towards the environment and sustainability. Energy, transportation, and public engagement are the main components that must be addressed to ensure the success of this plan, but they unfortunately are only modestly tackled. Actions with a bigger impact are required to achieve more serious GHG emissions reductions.

Implementing change through governments has its drawbacks. The short-term thinking of governments produces short-term plans that concentrate more on quick and less-effective changes , and thus keep deferring tangible and challenging actions to next-term governments. Leadership visions inspire the public, but visions need time for implementation and for the public to be able to pick their fruits. All this requires more than quick short-term action plans. Engaging the public before, through, and after planning is important for keeping visions alive.


Nourhan Al Kurdi
January 22, 2014




1 – Creating standards for carbon pollution

2- Doubling the production of renewable energy

3- Supporting clean energy innovation

4- Setting effective fuel economy standards

5- Applying advanced transportation technologies

6- Increasing energy efficiency in homes and commercial buildings

7- Improving collaboration between state governments and the federal government

8- Improving the international role of the United States in lowering GHG emissions

9- Promoting the production of energy through natural gas, nuclear power, and coal


Figure 1, Opportunity Prioritization Matrix for PCAP actions, prepared by the author, 2013



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