Barack’s Big Idea

On Monday, Barack Obama gave a landmark speech setting out his vision for tackling climate change. Raising the bar for his rivals, the Democratic presidential hopeful promised to slash America’s greenhouse-gas emissions, establishing a carbon-trading market and pouring $150 billion into the hunt for solutions to global warming.

The speech, which delivered the kind of bold, blue-sky thinking that the Illinois senator has tried - not always successfully - to make his trademark, included a pledge to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and by a further 80 percent by 2050. If he can deliver, Obama would bring all of America in line with California’s environmental standards, trumping even the EU’s ambitious targets.

To power his green revolution, Obama proposes a turbo-charged cap-and-trade system designed to give polluters an incentive to clean up their acts. Crucially, the scheme wouldn’t give companies a free starting quota, as most trading systems do, but instead would charge for every ounce of carbon emitted. That’s a smart move: It increases the system’s impact, and radically reduces the scope for the kind of costly cock-ups that have plagued the European carbon market.

The new program would help fund $150 billion in green investments, much of which would go towards developing new technologies. Importantly, though, the spending wouldn’t all be on pie-in-the-sky R&D; funds would also go to supporting tried-and-tested technologies, as well as promoting green jobs and protecting low-income workers.

So far, so good. The problems begin when Obama turns his attention to coal: He talks tough, promising a ban on new plants that lack carbon-capture technology, but is worryingly vague about the details. It’s likely that rather than proposing a full-blown moratorium on carbon-emitting plants, Obama is backing “capture-compatible” systems that could be upgraded when sequestration technologies become available.

And that’s a problem: Until the technology is fully developed, capture-compatible plants would offer minimal environmental gains, while irrevocably locking the country into a coal-powered future. At worst, that could see Barack’s $150 billion bonanza frittered away shoring up Big Coal, rather than invested in renewables or energy-efficiency programs.

As a coal-state senator, Obama has drawn fire in the past for supporting dirty technologies favored by his industry donors. This week, he’s shown that he’s capable of brave, independent policy-making; he should follow up by taking a tougher line on coal, and proving to greens that he’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is.