America's new green guru sparks anger over climate change U-turns

President Obama's energy secretary, Nobel prize-winner Steven Chu, arrives in Europe this week to discuss global warming. But his recent policy decisions on coal-fired power stations and hydrogen cars have angered many environmentalists

US energy secretary Steven Chu will fly to Europe this week to begin talks that will be crucial in the global battle against climate change. The 61-year-old physicist will hold key discussions with energy ministers from the G8 nations in Rome before travelling to London to take part in a debate with Nobel prize winners on global warming.

The arrival of Chu, himself a physics Nobel laureate, comes as the scientist-turned-politician finds himself attacked by environmentalists over decisions he has made about America's campaign to fight global warming. Green groups have accused him of being "contradictory and illogical" and of failing to demonstrate sufficient dynamism in establishing a new, low-carbon approach to transport and power-generation in the United States.

In recent weeks, Chu - who was appointed energy secretary by Barack Obama in December - has revealed that he is no longer willing to block the construction of new coal-powered electricity plants in the US, despite widespread opposition from green groups and having initially said that he would not permit their construction.

Environmental campaigners object vociferously to coal plants - which atmosphere scientist James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, recently labelled "factories of death" in an article he wrote for the Observer - because of their high carbon emissions.

In addition, Chu has called for a slowdown in the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles in the US and slashed funding for new projects by 60%. "We asked ourselves: is it likely in the next 10 or 15, or even 20, years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?" Chu explained. "The answer, we felt, was no."

On top of these controversial pronouncements, Chu has eliminated funding for a project to build a nuclear waste store at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Instead of storage, he has backed the construction of fast neutron reactors that could burn long-lived waste. Such a move, which would require a major expansion of the US nuclear industry, has horrified ecology groups.

Yet most US eco-campaigners were overjoyed by Chu's appointment last year. They saw his arrival as the start of a new, enlightened approach to the issues of global warming and the environment. But recently many have been angered by Chu's actions, a point stressed by Damon Moglen from Greenpeace USA. "We are getting very concerned. Professor Chu is a good man and a good scientist, but the science on global warming is clear and he should be guided by the science not the politics," Moglen said. "It is out of the question that the US should agree new power stations for burning coal - the dirtiest fuel. Our targets on emissions are too low anyway - and there is no way we will meet even those low targets if we allow more coal to be burned."

For his part, Chu admits he was taken aback by his entry to Washington life. "I didn't appreciate how much of a public figure you become," he said. Chu is the youngest son in a high-achieving Chinese-immigrant family from New York. His father emigrated from China to study chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while his mother studied economics in China and at MIT. One brother is a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Stanford; the other is an intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles.

Chu at first seemed a modest achiever - until his work at Stanford, where his research on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light earned him a Nobel prize. Even then his family seems to have been unimpressed; he told the New York Times, when asked if his parents had been excited about his award, "Probably, but who knows? I called my mother up when they announced the Nobel prize, waiting until seven in the morning. She said, 'That's nice - and when are you going to see me next?'"

However, Chu now faces a very different, and ultimately more critical, audience after being appointed energy secretary. At the time, he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a civilian research organisation with 4,000 employees and a $600m annual budget.

His green views were well known at the time and Chu has argued that he is merely being pragmatic in making his recent pronouncement, and that he is still enthusiastically committed to the cause of cutting US carbon emissions. "As someone very concerned about climate I want to be as aggressive as possible but I also want to get started," he told the BBC. "And if we say we want something much more aggressive on the early timescales that would draw considerable opposition, and that would delay the process for several years."

As a result, Chu has been extremely careful in his statements. For example, solar power, he says, is still far too expensive to compete with conventional power plants. At the same time, he has been quick to outline plans for reducing carbon dioxide emissions through energy efficiencies. He estimates that better buildings could cut energy use in the US by roughly one-third, and that even modest changes in building stock could bring energy reductions of 10%. In other key measures, he supports the idea of replacing of the US electricity grid with a so-called "smart grid" that would aid small-scale generators, and is close to allocating $18.5bn in government loan guarantees for building the first new nuclear plants in four decades.

However, the real problem for the slight, softly spoken man is that America isolated itself over the issue of climate change for eight years under the presidency of George Bush. As a result, opposition to the idea of reducing carbon emissions has become entrenched. Obama has indicated he wants America to cut its greenhouse gas emissions significantly but has left it to Congress to pass the necessary legislation. However, the energy industry continues to lobby politicians fiercely and the forthcoming climate and energy bill faces considerable hurdles.

At the same time, the US is coming under increasing diplomatic pressure - particularly from Europe - to take a lead in the current round of global negotiations which are aimed at cutting carbon emissions throughout the developed and developing worlds. The next round of these talks will begin in Bonn on 1 June, and will reach a climax in December when world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to ratify an international agreement that will replace the current Kyoto climate change deal.

With Obama committed to the idea of tackling climate change, many world leaders are now looking to the US to set a lead and to persuade emerging industrial giants such as China and India to agree to a tight, effective new deal in Copenhagen. But the US itself faces major problems in cutting its carbon output. While Europe has faced up to the problem of climate change for more than a decade and has reduced its output of greenhouse gases significantly, the US has continued to pump out more and more carbon. "Its output is now so high, the US cannot now turn round and get that down to anything like the baseline figure being established by Europe for the end of the next decade," said a British diplomat.

As a result, the US is seeking to raise that baseline figure - from its 1990 output to the far greater figure set in 2005. This would mean the US would not have to reduce its carbon emissions too radically for the next 10 years. "That would be acceptable only if the US pledges it will make far greater cuts in the succeeding decades and reduces its output, proportionally, to the same final level as the rest of the world," added the source.

The move would ease criticism of future climate deals at home but will cause significant irritation among many negotiators in Europe and other parts of the world. Chu will have to tread a careful path. For his part, the physicist has shown himself to be a pragmatist rather than an ideologically bound administrator.

People should not make the mistake of thinking him a pushover, however, as Matt Rogers, a Chu appointee at the energy department, has made clear: "He is a kind man; he is a nice man. But he is not a patient man. People are going to have to take a deep breath and realise they're going to be moving at a much quicker pace than they were used to."

The Chu file

Steven Chu, a former physics professor at Berkeley, was appointed by President Obama as energy secretary at the start of this year. An advocate of biofuels, he jointly won the 1997 Nobel Prize for physics and was named one of Time magazine's most influential people this year. He lives in Washington, is married to another physicist, Jean Chu, and has two sons from a previous marriage.

Steven Chu on ...

... his Nobel Prize

When asked by the New York Times if his family was impressed, he said: "Probably, but who knows? I called my mother up when they announced the Nobel Prize, waiting until seven in the morning. She said, 'That's nice - and when are you going to see me next?' "

... climate change

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what will happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going, either." (2009)

... energy

"If I were emperor, I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation." (2007)


Robin McKie in London and Ed Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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