Obama Names New Housing Secretary

President-Elect Barack Obama announced New York City housing chief, Shaun Donovan, as his choice for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Donovan has an extensive background in affordable housing issues, including a stint as a Deputy Assistant Secretary at HUD during the Clinton years, overseeing multifamily housing policy.

It appears that he has a reputation for being pragmatic and open to innovative housing policies. He has been a proponent of inclusionary zoning–a scheme whereby builders get to build at a higher density if they dedicate a small percentage of units to affordable housing. The effect is to soften the burden of high housing costs to working families in hot real estate markets.

He has also encouraged architectural innovation and quality design in public housing construction in New York–perhaps stemming from his architectural training.

He does come to the job with some potentially controversial opinions. He has been an advocate for lowering the cap on the tax subsidies given to home owners who deduct their local property tax and mortgage interest. As it stands, deductions up to a million dollars can be taken. It has been reported that Donovan argues that by lowering the subsidy excess funds could be used for affordable housing projects.

Calls for reducing or eliminating the deduction for mortgage interest and property taxes have been heard for a long time. Most recently the call came from Bush’s tax reform advisory panel. You probably didn’t hear about it since this tax subsidy is one of the most cherished by middle- and upper-middle class voters.

It will be interesting to see if Donovan calls for this type of tax reform to fund affordable housing. It will certainly not be politically popular and such a position can be easily spun by critics to the point of irrationality. But, the subsidy is a bit absurd–a million bucks is quite a bit of money; plus you can deduct the interest on your second home.

Given that the HUD director doesn’t have much influence over tax policy, Donovan’s opinions on this issue are probably superfluous. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see a cantankerous senator bring it up during his confirmation hearings.

Poznan Climate Change Talks: Final Day

The UN-sponsored climate change talks ended today in Poznan with little fanfare. High-level delegates continued their speeches, but agreements on anything of substance were minimal.

If you’ve read previous posts in this series, the reasons for this will not be surprising. The interregnum of US leadership proved to be both a force for generating excitement amongst the delegates and an excuse for delaying action.

Europeans found it hard to hide their elation about the new US leadership while cynical delegates from countries like Canada used the vacuum to water down their own positions. Perhaps the European elation was, itself, a tactic to avoid drawing attention to their own internal dysfunction that has marked the last two weeks.

Meanwhile, countries in the less developed world articulated their sense of urgency regarding the immediate effects of climate change quite passionately but, ultimately, to little end. An “adaptation fund” was agreed upon, but its financing mechanisms have still not been resolved. Currently, it is largely capitalized by a levy placed on projects undertaken in the less developed world, but funded by developed countries to meet a portion of their emissions targets. It has only raised about $80 million; however, the UN estimates that developing countries need $86 billion per year to fund their adaptation needs. To meet the funding shortfall developing countries were advocating for a financing scheme which would tax transactions on the carbon trading market. This suggestion, however, was rejected by developed countries

So where do we go from here? Last year’s meeting in Bali set next December as the date to have the successor to the Kyoto Protocol fully negotiated. By April 2009 countries will submit more detailed language which will then be consolidated into a “negotiation document” to be discussed at a meeting in Bonn in June.

As I see it there will be three main issues to look at in the next seven months. The first will be the aggressiveness of the US in the negotiations. As mentioned above, delegates from all over the world expressed excitement about the new administration. I don’t doubt that some of this is genuine–but a lot of the good will to the US was likely due to the fact that they were not a serious negotiating partner in Poznan.

While Obama was nearly universally praised, there was little criticism of the fact that he has already announced midterm GHG emissions targets that are quite low. He is, however, in line with the EU on long-term goals.

The problem with Obama’s position is that the scientific assessments of the IPCC (which provide the basis for the talks) say that more dramatic short-term action is important in keeping global temperature growth below the 2C range. Will Obama be able to get a “pass” for the weak US short-term position?

Secondly, the issue of financing adaptation will be a serious sticking point that probably won’t get resolved until Copenhagen (if then). Developing countries–and many NGOs [.pdf]–argue that it could be relatively easy to raise the requisite adaptation funds by taxing the carbon market. The problem is that in the developed countries, there is not only a strong push from industry to be given emission credits for free, but there are domestic demands for the money. Obama’s cap-and-trade scheme, for instance, calls for using a significant proportion of the money earned by auctioning credits for a “green jobs” initiative. How can competing claims on the carbon market auction money be reconciled?

Finally, the issue of forests–or to use UN parlance, reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation [REDD]–will be another North/South battle without prospects for easy resolution. At issue is finding an appropriate financial mechanism to give developing countries an incentive not to deforest. Additionally, there is a concern amongst indigenous peoples that any forest plan involving large sums of capital could violate the rights of indigenous peoples.

That’s where we stand. It will certainly be an exciting few months on this front as Obama gets rolling. This will be he first–and in many respects, most difficult–foreign policy challenge for the new administration. Let’s see how they respond.

Poznan Climate Change Talks: Day Ten

High level ministers, ambassadors, and heads of state arrived in Poznan today for the last two days of negotiations.  Thus the meeting was dominated by a ministerial meeting featuring short speeches by the high-level delegates.  There were nice bits of political theater, but very little in the way of substance.

Among the more forceful speeches were those from less developed countries who were quite harsh on the EU’s lack of action.  South African representative Marthinus van Schalkwyk, for example, chided developed countries for failing to even talk about plans floated by less developed countries whereby they would lower emissions with adequate aid from the industrialized world.

Australia was also called out for their failure to express firm support for binding emissions in the post-Kyoto agreement–a position more in line with that of the Bush Administration.  The Australian is reporting that the PM Kevin Rudd is being lobbied heavily by Gordon Brown and Al Gore to reverse course.

Some developing countries even announced their own plans for domestic cuts.  Mexico’s plan is the boldest.  Their target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 2002 levels.  This apparently will be done–in part–by instituting a domestic cap-and-trade scheme.

Finally, there was significant dispute over the role of forest protection and deforestation in stemming the climate crisis.  The issue is admittedly quite complex.  Measurement of carbon in forest ecosystems is a task in and of itself.  Part of any deal would involve developed countries funding forest enhancement projects in the less developed world in exchange for credits to be applied to their emissions reduction targets.  Therefore, how one goes about measuring the carbon offsets in these types of projects is quite important.

Forests are going to be on the table, but look for intense debate next year at the Copenhagen talks. I found one interesting tidbit in an article in the Indian paper, The Hindu.  It discusses how the mention of the rights to indigenous peoples in the negotiating document on forest issues was deliberately watered down by the US.

On Friday there will be more speeches–including one by the high-level US representative, Paula Dobriansky. Today the delegation held a news conference which was amusing.  Fiona Harvey (I think) of the Financial Times asked Dobriansky and Bush’s top environmental adviser James Connaughton if they had any “regrets” over their handling of the climate change issue over the past 8 years.

Think Progress jumped on the silliness of Dobrinasky’s regret that they could have done better at “public diplomacy.”  Connaugthon, however, internalized the Bush administration’s incapacity for self reflection in saying that his biggest regret was that it took Russia too long to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and that Russian indecision made it too hard to get on with mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

That is true–however, the Bush administration could have solved that problem simply by working to ratify the protocol itself!  Bush, of course, walked away from Kyoto in his third month as President.  A US ratification would have made the treaty binding at a much earlier date.

More Clarity on Obama's Green Team

It appears that speculation about Obama’s pick of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as energy secretary was misguided.

Both the Washington Post and Reuters are reporting that Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu is Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary. Chu has been the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has a keen understanding of the climate change challenge, and has overseen research into renewable energy. This is a great pick and gives credence to Obama’s push to tackle climate change and situate the US at the center of technological innovation in the energy sector.

Numerous outlets are also pointing out that former EPA chief, Carol Browner, will be a White House-based climate change czar. Browner is good on the issue, but it is unclear how she will be able to manage the portfolio given the fact that policies relating to the climate span numerous bureaucracies and agencies. If she has the ear of the President–and other cabinet secretaries recognize that–she could be very effective.

At the EPA he is apparently set to nominate Lisa Jackson as the top administrator. I don’t know much about Jackson, but her pedigree as a chemical engineer and 16-year veteran at the agency suggest she will bring professionalism and a scientific background to an agency that has been woefully politicized under Bush.

Finally, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality is supposed to be Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, Nancy Sutley. This is a key position because the CEQ head is generally the top Presidential adviser on environmental issues.  Sutley was a top aide to Browner at the EPA, so perhaps that means we can expect much-needed cooperation on the climate change portfolio.  I also am impressed that Sutley comes with an urban background.  Hopefully this will result in a richer understanding of the need for sustainable cities to be at the top of the federal environmental agenda.

Poznan Climate Change Talks: Day Nine

As the high-level minsters begin arriving in Poznan today for the end of the UN climate change talks, today was spent by the delegations to get an agreement on SOMETHING so the two weeks don’t turn out to be a total wash.

At this point a wash looks difficult to avoid. Aside from the fact that the US has basically been a non-player at Poznan, the supposed leaders of the developed country block, the European Union, are still trying to get their own internal debates straightened out. The European Union’s Environmental Minister, Stavros Dimas, isn’t worried–he indicated that he is confident that the short-term emissions target of 20% below 1990 levels “will be intact.” The dispute is centered less on the reductions targets, and more on how coal-heavy countries, like Poland will pay for mitigation. It is looking like a deal will be hatched tomorrow that has Western European countries footing a part of the bill and a certain amount of emissions permits will be given to Eastern European industry (as opposed to being auctioned).

In Poznan, the negotiators charged with developing the details of the successor to Kyoto adopted their agenda for the next 12 months [.pdf]. The group will be meeting again next June and will be taking input from parties up until the end of April for what they refer to as the “negotiating text.” This doesn’t give Obama’s team very long to get into the swing of things.

Although Bush’s people have maintained a low profile, they did put forward proposals (p.71, [.pdf]) for the 2009 talks. These inputs will be part of the negotiations in the spring that lead up to the June meeting.

Namely, they insist that “at least some developing countries should be taking the same kinds of mitigation actions as developed countries.” This goes back to Bush’s long-standing criticism of Kyoto as not requiring India and China to have any binding reductions. China and India have a pretty legitimate response: per capita emissions in their countries are nothing near Western levels and the persistence of CO2s in the atmosphere is the the main source of the problem. Western countries emitted those persistent CO2s and they have the obligation to shoulder the burden of future reductions.

There were also some more promising elements suggested by the US delegation. They called for “creating legal and regulatory conditions that facilitate adaptation (for example, building codes, land use planning, and strengthening policy coherence among sectors).” This is interesting from the US perspective since–as it stands now–the federal government doesn’t have much control over land use decisions. There is nothing prohibiting the feds constitutionally, however, from demanding carbon efficiency in local projects that it funds. So, advocates for policies that encourage mixed-use zoning, or high density development would be well-served by this type of proposal.

It is important to stress that this is a very preliminary document and much will change throughout the next twelve months. It would be interesting to see an enterprising reporter, however, ask Obama about his stand on whether he would only agree to binding emissions reductions if China and India did likewise. It is especially apposite since India and China are already turning up the heat on Obama saying his proposals don’t go far enough.

Granholm as Energy Secretary?

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is scheduled to meet with Barack Obama’s transition team today with a cadre of her energy advisers.  This has led to speculation that she may be in line for a cabinet appointment as Energy Secretary.

I don’t know much about Granholm–but it comes as a bit of surprise that she would emerge as energy secretary given Obama’s penchant for choosing people with significant expertise for cabinet positions.  Given the prominence he as placed on climate change and renewables, it would make more sense to choose someone who has spent a lot of time dedicated to those issues.

This isn’t meant to be a dig at Granholm, but her background as a lawyer is less apposite to the position than if she were, say, a scientist or climate change analyst/practitioner.  Someone like Steven Chu–who has also been on the Energy Secretary shortlist–might make more sense.

New Urbanists Weigh in on the Obama Federal Agenda

The Congress of New Urbanism points me to the new issue of the New Urban News where some of the more prominent smart growth/new urbanists have taken President-elect Obama up on his invitation to contribute ideas for federal policy reform.

The list they come up with is pretty sensible: reduce the federal transportation funding bias that favors highways, link environmental policy to neighborhood design, deploy bailout and stimulus dollars to smart growth projects and policies, shift tax policy to reduce the bias towards driving.

The list is little lean on specifics; but I would add one that might help: integrate carbon accounting in the budgeting and regulatory process.  This could probably be done through an executive order and be implemented through the Office of Management and Budget.  OMB reviews budget requests and program performance.  As such they have a tremendous impact on the regulations and the practice of policy implementation.

If carbon intensity were an evaluative criteria, there would be an incentive for energy-efficient practices coming out of the federal agencies that influence metropolitan regions the most, like HUD or DOT.  Carbon efficiency would compel states and cities to plan for higher densities and more walkable communities–the things new urbanists love.

Poznan Climate Change Talks: Day Eight

Just a brief post today–For non-US readers, we had a pretty dramatic political scandal here in my hometown today that has consumed too much of my attention. It involves good old fashioned corruption from an extremely unpopular governor and President-Elect Obama’s old Senate seat.

While the police were arresting and arraigning our governor, across the street from the courthouse, Barack Obama met with Al Gore before the latter’s trip to Poznan. The press was more interested in the emerging Illinois governor scandal than with climate change, but Obama did manage to declare that “the time for delay is over. The time for denial is over.” Questions about his view on the UN’s “shared vision,” how to reform the Clean Development Mechanism, or how to finance a climate adaptation fund I guess will have to wait.

In Poznan itself, the official delegations continued to meet behind closed doors in an effort to hash out an agreement for ministers to sign later this week. Tomorrow various working groups will be continuing their open meetings. The one group that merits attention is the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Action Under the Convention (AWG-LCA). They are the group responsible for setting the stage for debate on emissions reduction targets for the post-Kyoto agreement.

They just released the summary [.pdf] of the discussions thus far. On the 2050 goal the document describes “many parties” arguing for a global 50% reduction from 1990 levels and “some parties” arguing for 80%. Developed countries’ obligations are seen as being between 80-95% of 1990 levels by 2050 and 25-40% of 1990 levels by 2020. Obama’s plan would meet an 80% reduction by 2050 but only a reduction TO 1990 levels by 2020 for the US.

One thing that UN climate chief Yvo de Boer thinks will come out of this week’s talks is a financing mechanism for less developed countries to use for adaptation projects.   Many of the articles on the Poznan talks from the Asian and African press are preoccupied with how much money will be available in an adaptation fund.

In other developments, Oxfam tried to tap into the star power of Scarlett Johansson, Thome Yorke, Desmond Tutu, Anne Lennox, and others by releasing a letter [.pdf] singed by the aforementioned (and others) urging delegates to commit to making sure that world leaders stop global temperature rise at 2C.

Finally, it appears that the EU ministers are beginning to show some agreement on their ambitious energy and climate plan that has the ability to significantly impact the UN talks in Poznan.  According to the Financial Times, diplomats worked out an agreement on a renewable energy portfolio calling for an EU-wide figure of 20% renewable production by 2020.

Tomorrow, EU leaders are meeting in Brussels to come to an agreement on the entire package–including reduction targets for 2020.  This has occupied the attention of many activist groups throughout Europe, including the World Wildlife Fund,  and Plane Stupid, which disrupted flights at London’s Stanstead Airport.

Poznan Climate Change Talks: Day Seven

Official negotiations did not take place today in deference to the Eid al-Adha holiday. However, many delegations held press conferences and gave updates going in to the final week of negotiations.

On the US side, head negotiator Harlan Watson indicated that “progress is being made” in negotiations; however when asked what has been accomplished, Watson admitted that there has been “no push from anybody to foreclose options.” In fact, he said that the 82-page working document [.pdf] that serves as the basis of discussions is actually being expanded! Isn’t the goal of negotiations to ultimately “foreclose options”?

On the UNFCCC side, climate chief Yvo de Boer said convergence is emerging on a “framework for adaptation”, the establishment of regional centres to offer technical assistance as it pertains to adaptation, a possible insurance mechanism for states to deal with the risk associated with climate change, and a special consideration of the particular issues that face of indigenous peoples. He also seemed to contradict Harlan Watson on the 82-page working document saying that while more proposals had come in during the last few days of negotiation, there would be a “next-generation” version of the document which would be condensed and set the stage for the next year’s negotiations.

On the EU side, chief negotiator (and cousin of John Kerry!), Brice Lalonde, was a little more optimistic. He indicated that parties had agreed that the financial crisis can not be used as an excuse for inaction. Any disagreements between parties are like “little stones in our shoes which we have to try to deal with on our way–they are not very big stones.” He also expected that the Obama administration will have engaged in “domestic negotiation” by next year’s meeting in Copenhagen presumably so the US will be able to agree to specific emissions reductions. It is unclear if “domestic negotiation” refers to passed legislation, but if the US can actually commit to a domestic 2050 target by next December that would certainly enhance the prospects for a post-Kyoto agreement to be signed on-time.

Meanwhile, here in Chicago, Al Gore is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Barack Obama. The Washington Post reports that Gore is not expected to be in line for a job in the new administration but is consulting with Obama and Biden on climate change as the President-elect puts together his environmental policy team.  Funny–Gore hasn’t mentioned the meeting yet on his Twitter feed.  However he did say that he is going to Poznan sometime this week.  Given that he is scheduled to make an appearance in Ljubljana at a function sponsored by Diners Club Slovenija on Wednesday, he will probably get to Poznan as ministerial talks begin.   Is he going to function as an unofficial Obama emissary?  Will it make a difference to the outcome of negotiations?

Obama's Economic Stimulus Plan: Take One

Barack Obama used his weekly web/radio address yesterday to call for an economic stimulus plan that would entail “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.”

I haven’t seen the actual plan, but his laundry list was promising: retrofit federal government buildings for maximum energy efficiency, build and remodel school buildings, and dedicate resources towards expanding broadband internet access throughout the country.

The only potentially troubling aspect was the equation of transportation infrastructure with “roads and bridges” and no mention of public transportation.  Given the numerous statements he’s given on climate change, the emission of less carbon-intensive forms of mobility from his speech could have been the result of time constraints.

Regardless, this type of active spending will likely have tremendous economic benefits if implemented in a systematic fashion.  Ignoring the carbon impact of this spending, however, could negate benefits in the long-term if the country finds itself highly indebted and needing to adapt to climate variability.

Michael O’Hare of Berkeley gives a compelling critique of Obama’s address over at the Reality Based Community.