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Moving Forward on Reducing Carbon Pollution

President Barack Obama climate change

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama speaks at the morning plenary session of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 18, 2009. While the Obama administration has done much to address climate change, it still needs to do much more.

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* Author’s note, June 24, 2013: This column has been updated to reflect the role of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition in reducing super pollutants.

“This is the global threat of our time. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.”President Barack Obama, June 19, 2013

President Obama knows that climate change is the defining challenge of our time and his presidency. Early in his administration, he committed to putting the United States on a path to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change. This commitment—made in Copenhagen in 2009—is a pledge by the United States to reduce its greenhouse-gas pollution to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The president took significant actions during his first term to fulfill that promise, and news reports indicate that on Tuesday he will announce the most important step in this effort: reducing carbon pollution from power plants.

There are three primary policies undertaken by the Obama administration that have reduced carbon pollution responsible for climate change:

  • Making cars more efficient. The president worked with the auto industry, autoworkers, and states to implement the first motor-vehicle greenhouse-gas tailpipe standard, along with fuel-economy standards of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025—double the standard in 2010. These measures will save 2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution over the lifetime of new vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025.
  • Investing in clean energy as part of an economic recovery strategy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA, committed more than $80 billion to clean energy, helping weatherize 1 million low-income homes to save families an average of $400 annually in lower utility bills. ARRA investments also grew the wind and solar industries, helping to double domestic renewable electricity generation in four years.
  • Reducing super pollutants through domestic, international, and bilateral actions. Carbon dioxide is the most abundant and long-lasting greenhouse gas, but there are other less-common gases that generate significantly more warming per molecule compared to carbon pollution. Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, for example, which are used as a refrigerant and coolant, can be up to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. In early June the Obama administration convinced China to support the phase down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, which is essential to convincing the major developing countries to participate in this effort. Securing this agreement would reduce climate change pollution by around 90 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050 and avoid half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

The first two measures were partially responsible for reducing 2011 greenhouse-gas levels to 7 percent below 2005 levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts additional domestic reductions in carbon pollution between now and 2017, but emissions will rise again without the adoption of additional reduction policies. Getting our greenhouse-gas pollution to 17 percent below 2005 levels will require at least one more big step: carbon-pollution reductions from power plants.

No new laws are required to achieve these reductions. In 2007 the Supreme Court required the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to determine whether greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act as an endangerment to public health. Then-President George W. Bush balked at enforcing the law despite the recommendations of the EPA administrator and agency scientists to do so. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finally made the endangerment finding under President Obama in 2009. In 2012 EPA proposed a carbon-pollution standard for new, yet-to-be-built power plants. Hopefully, the president will call on EPA to take the next step and develop standards for carbon pollution from existing plants.

Power plants are the single-largest uncontrolled source of climate pollution, producing one-third of greenhouse-gas pollution in the United States, according to EPA. The World Resources Institute found that setting ambitious standards are the most important reduction measures to be taken in order to meet the 2020 goal. And the Natural Resources Defense Council found that a system of strong but flexible standards, along with state-led compliance mechanisms combined with existing reductions, would achieve three-quarters of the 17 percent reduction goal.

In addition to slashing industrial carbon pollution, we must also keep our economy running with renewable electricity and greater energy efficiency. When the president announces the next steps to cut greenhouse-gas pollution, he should also seize the many opportunities to improve the nation’s energy efficiency and to deploy more renewable energy. The president can utilize existing authorities to make government buildings more energy efficient, which would not only reduce pollution but save taxpayers money too. The federal government can hire energy-services companies to reduce its energy use. The president can also build on the Better Buildings Initiative to link private companies with federal resources to help finance energy-efficiency retrofits. In addition, the Obama administration should approve the eight pending appliance-efficiency standards that have been stalled for more than a year. Each month of delay costs consumers $200 million in lost energy savings and yields 3 million metric tons of carbon pollution, according to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

The amount of electricity produced by wind, solar, and other renewable power sources has nearly doubled under President Obama. The Department of the Interior has spurred renewable-energy growth on public lands by permitting projects that will ultimately produce more than 10,000 megawatts of renewable power. But much more can be done. Energy production on public lands is still heavily skewed toward the private production of fossil fuels burned for electricity. The Center for American Progress proposed a “clean resources standard” for public lands and waters to set an aggressive yet achievable new target: 35 percent of electricity produced from resources coming from public lands and waters must be renewable by 2035. Currently, 66 percent of the resources from public lands used for electricity are from coal, while only 1 percent is from wind, solar, and geothermal resources combined.

We must also continue to lead the international community to address climate change. Reducing HFCs through the Montreal Protocol and other short-lived climate pollutants through the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are critical first steps to phasing out harmful super pollutants, including methane and black carbon. More effort is needed, however, to scale up the ambition of the CCAC and expand the members to include the world’s biggest emerging economies, including China and India.*

While the nation cuts climate change pollution, we must also help communities cope with climate change impacts that are already here by helping them become more resilient to storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and fires. Every $1 invested in community resilience reduces extreme weather damage by $4, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To save lives and money, the Obama administration must identify revenue sources to assist threatened communities.

Reducing pollution from power plants, using energy more efficiently, reducing super pollutants, and moving toward renewable energy are a powerful set of tools for fighting climate change. We’re looking forward to the president building on his successful record by taking meaningful action on each of these.

Richard W. Caperton is Managing Director for Energy at the Center for American Progress. Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center.

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