Barriers to High Speed Rail in the US

Photo of high speed rail in Taiwan by dhchen

The New York Times had an interesting article over the weekend on the state of Florida’s recent rejection of federal money to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa.

This comes on the heels of gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin and Ohio where anti-rail governors who were elected last year similarly rejected federal money.

In spite of the fact that there is strong public support for high speed rail and that rail and public transit have a positive economic impact, the development of this key infrastructure is stagnating.

What are the reasons for this stagnation–particularly when governments overseeing advanced and growing economies in Europe and Asia have less problems generating political consensus around this public investment?

My sense is that much of the problem can be attributed to two factors: 1) the lack of a real coherent national transportation policy and 2) the peculiar decision-making structure of our federalist system.

The second point is quite apparent given the outlandish power that single states have to negatively impact regional plans.   This stems from the fact that the federal government largely defers to states to determine their transportation plans.  In terms of capital improvements like high-speed rail,  states determine plans and federal money is allocated to the extent that projects conform to state plans.

This, of course, is reflective of the first point: the federal government does not have a proper “national plan” nor does it engage in the crucial decision making necessary to implement a serious national rail vision.

Sure, the USDOT develops national plans, but they are secondary to the states when it comes to rail.  In the words of the 2009 National Rail Plan [pdf], the legislative mandate for USDOT planning is “to develop the plan consistent with approved State plans” (23)–not vice versa.

This distinction is crucial.  How can you have a national infrastructure system which is the product of 50 bottom-up decisions.  We can see the impact this might have in a region like the Midwest, where states like Illinois and Minnesota will be negatively impacted by unilateral decisions made in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The feds could deal with this barrier, but it won’t be easy.  Congress would have to pass legislation restricting state autonomy–something that wouldn’t have much support in the current political climate in Washington.

Until this happens, however, high speed rail is likely to be stuck on a slow track.

Obama to Attend COP-15 Talks in Copenhagen; Significance Uncertain

Reuters is reporting that US President Barack Obama will attend the COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen prior to his trip to Oslo on 10 December to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.    According to Fox, Obama will be at the talks on December 9.

Obama Addresses UN General Assembly; photo: UN
Obama Addresses UN General Assembly; photo: UN

Many people have been calling for leaders to attend the talks.  The argument is that heads of state and government will bring greater urgency to the negotiations and help push through a more robust deal.  Earlier this month Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen invited leaders of 192 countries to attend the talks, but the timing for this larger gathering of leaders is scheduled for the end of the second week, during the traditional “high level” segment.

Rasmussen’s invitation apparently includes a gala dinner hosted by the Danish queen on Thursday, 17 Dec. followed by negotiations on Friday the 18th–the last day of the conference.

So although Obama will attend COP15, it is unclear with whom he will negotiate.  I am not sure what will be accomplished if he shows up on 9 December, gives a speech, and then doesn’t engage with the other 65 leaders who have already announced their attendance at the high level segment.

In fact, the whole exercise could backfire on the US and contribute to the perception of many critics that they have been dragging their feet during the last year of negotiations.

Obama’s Nobel Prize–Implications for Climate Talks?

US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today.   The award comes just several short months into his Presidency, making him quite a surprise pick.  Normally the committee makes these awards after significant breakthroughs in international peace or long careers in diplomacy or development.

Photo: White House
Photo: White House

Climate Progress has an interesting angle on the implications of the award on the international climate change talks underway.   They point out that in the announcement of the prize, the Nobel committee mentions that “thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting.”

Close observers of the US stance in the climate talks will acknowledge a change in the US attitude at the talks since Obama took office.  But there has been much less movement of the actual US position on key issues such as mitigation.  In fact, the meetings this past week in Bangkok nearly ground to a halt as developing countries accused the US of being a “stumbling block” in efforts to advance the negotiations.  They have essentially moved from being obstructionist under President Bush to being non-committal.

Climate Progress suggests, however, that the Nobel could be the shot-in-the-arm needed to breathe energy into the talks.  Obama mentioned the challenge of climate change in his address this morning where he said he looked upon the award as a “call to action.”

It has been reported that he will attend the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10.   This falls late in the first week of the big climate talks in Copenhagen–a mere hour flight away.

The timing isn’t perfect.  As Reuters points out, the high level ministerial sessions begin six days later on the 16th.  There is a movement from civil society groups to push heads of government to attend the sessions in order to highlight the urgent need for a global deal.

Regardless of whether Obama attends the meeting in Copenhagen or not, his presence in the region in the midst of the talks to accept an award for his global leadership will certainly influence the proceedings.

US Senate Climate Bill Released

Today Senators Boxer and Kerry are officially releasing the draft text of the Senate climate and energy bill.  Among the highlights of the text that was leaked yesterday [.pdf]:

  • A reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 2005 levels by 2020.  This would essentially meet US reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.  Of course the US wouldn’t meet the 2012 time line, but this is a relatively strong target.  The House version of the bill calls for only a 17% reduction from 2005.
  • It also appears that the Senate version will give the Environmental Protection Agency more latitude to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  The EPA is already starting to take an aggressive stance on regulation.  The House bill, however, strips a significant amount of authority from the EPA for instituting greenhouse gas regulation.
  • On the issue of dealing with emissions from transportation, the Senate bill offers grants for transit-oriented development, but according to Streetsblog, it is unclear what proportion of revenue generated from the sale of emissions permits would go to low-carbon transportation (e.g. mass transit, cycling, bus).   The House version advocates around 1%, while many environmentalists argue that a 10% investment would be more sufficient.

On the whole, reports about the Senate bill suggest that it is quite strong.  Obviously the details will change as Senate committees hold hearings later this month.  But if it looks like something close to the draft is passed, it will give the Obama Administration quite a bit of leverage going into international negotiations in Copenhagen later this year.

Obama Going to Copenhagen

The White House just announced that US President Barack Obama will be going to Copenhagen…to support Chicago’s Olympic bid.

If the President is willing to travel across the world to try and lobby the International Olympic Committee to award the games to Chicago, there should be no excuse for him to travel back to Copenhagen in December to help hash out a climate deal.

Many heads of government have announced their intention to attend the COP15 talks–including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  In Brown’s estimation, having the highest level of representation in Copenhagen shows the urgency needed to hash out a global deal.

If Obama goes to Copenhagen to support a two-week sporting event and fails to attend a historic meeting in the same city to transform the world’s economy towards a low-carbon path, the symbolism will be noted by delegations from other countries.

It won’t bode well for generating a global response for dealing with one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Brief Rundown of UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit

It is climate week in New York!  Before tomorrow’s opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon held a summit on climate change.

Given the slow progress thus far to meet the December deadline of putting together a global climate deal,  it was hoped that today’s meeting of leaders might breathe some life into the negotiations.

The entire proceedings are available via webcast from the UN.  I haven’t had a chance to watch them, but I did skim the prepared remarks from some of the global leaders.

For a nice pithy assessment of what is at stake, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Rajendra Pachauri’s remarks are useful.  He reminded leaders that the science tells us that doing nothing will result in a planetary temperature increase of somewhere between 1.1 & 6 degrees C, with a likely range between 1.8 & 4.   The G8 leaders agreed that warming should be limited to 2° C.  Because of the lagging nature of warming and emissions, this would require a peak level of emissions by 2015.

After Pachauri’s comments, various leaders took the podium, beginning with US President Barack Obama.  His speech was vague and not revelatory in terms of stating what sort of action the US was going to take to limit greenhouse gas emissions and how (and how much) rich countries will finance adaptation aid to poor countries bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.  It was pretty disappointing.  Being the largest per-capita emitter, the US needs to show some leadership in agreeing to binding emissions cuts and in financing its fair share of any adaptation fund.  Obama danced around the issues, offering no specifics about reductions targets.

Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed followed and didn’t mince his words.  He called for developed countries to reduce their emissions enough to quell warming at 1.5°C by accepting legally binding targets.  He also said that if developed countries accepted these ambitious targets, then developing countries would also be prepared to accept their own more modest targets if rich countries helped out with the financing.

Nasheed’s deal is sound–requiring appropriate binding emissions on the part of all countries.  Rich countries, however, have to show leadership and help poorer nations reach their own goals.

Rawandan President Paul Kagame had an interesting proposal: develop a global carbon emissions trading scheme based on per capita emissions.  Pick a safe cap–he suggested 2 metric tones of CO2E per year–and allow global trading.  Countries with low per-capita levels would receive flows of financing from high per capita countries that would allow the former to sustain forests and invest in renewable energy.  Kagame’s plan also seems more equitable since it uses per-capita numbers to evaluate which countries should reduce their emissions.

The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, reflected the seriousness with which his government is embarking on negotiations by getting precise about emissions targets–a reduction by 25% from 1990 levels.  Hatoyama also gave some detail on how he would like to see aid distributed–a major issue for developing countries skeptical of the demands of multilateral institutions.  He specifically called for financing to go through the “UN climate change regime”–as opposed to the World Bank, which may not have the same environmental goals.

Rounding out the session were speeches by Nicholas Sarkozy, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, and Hu Jintao of China.

In sum, it is not clear how this event will impact the negotiations.  There obviously will be back-door maneuvering this week in New York which may move things along.

Obama’s speech was a bit of a disappointment given the expectations that the US would change radically under the new administration.   Although these expectations have always been a bit overblown, it is surprising that US has maintained such a noncommittal position.  Obviously this may not bode well for real action in Copenhagen.

US Climate Envoy Briefs Congress

Yesterday Todd Stern, the US State Department’s Special Envoy on Climate Change addressed the House select committee on climate change.  I didn’t get a chance to watch the hearing, but a couple of interesting things came out according to media reports.

First, he reiterated the importance of having Congress pass a climate bill by the time that the UN convenes climate negotiations in December, saying that having a climate law immanent would give the US “credibility and leverage” in negotiations.

Of course, he was speaking to the wrong audience.  The House passed its version of a climate and energy bill in June and is now waiting on the Senate.  The Senate has delayed consideration of climate legislation with the battle over health care reform taking center stage in Congressional deliberations.  This has make Senators from a wide variety of backgrounds less than optimistic about passage of legislation.  Some key Senators–namely Kerry and Boxer–are not giving up the fight and expect initial legislation to be introduced this month.

Stern also made mention of the difficulties ahead of Copenhagen with regard to aid to developing countries to shift to low carbon economic growth.  This is a major issue in negotiations with large emitters like China insistent that significaant financial flows from North to South be included in any agreement.  For countries poorer than China, guaranteed aid to deal with adaptation as well as mitigation is essential.

Before Stern’s remarks the European Commission released a plan that assumed developing countries would need $145 billion annually  by 2020 in climate-related aid.  Stern made no definitive response to the European proposal and a document released today by the US Treasury Department in advance of a meeting of G-20 finance ministers calls for increased money but doesn’t provide specific committments.

The European proposal has been seen as a way to jump-start negotiations, but the US silence suggests the move may not have been entirely successful.

Obama is scheduled to give a major speech on climate at the UN meeting in New York later this month.  Perhaps at that juncture he will be  bit more forthcoming with the US position.