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5 More Items for President Obama’s Climate Change To-Do List

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change and his Climate Action Plan on June 25, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

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On the eve of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, the Center for American Progress recommended 10 energy and environmental priorities for President Obama’s second term to build on his first-term clean energy successes. Now, one year later, with the annual State of the Union address coming up, we can assess the status of these recommendations and add five new actions that would further enhance our health and safety, grow our economy, and protect our air, water, and climate.

A quick review of the past year reveals that President Obama has made important strides toward accomplishing most of our second-term priorities. His historic Climate Action Plan, announced in June, should achieve many of these goals if it is fully implemented and enforced. See the text box below for a full status report on our second-term energy and environment priorities.

Despite this progress, we need more swift action to slow climate change and prevent further damage from fossil-fuel pollution. As The New York Times recently reported:

Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.

Because of this urgency, CAP recommends that the Obama administration promptly take the following steps in addition to completing the aforementioned tasks.

1. Establish an ambitious 2025/2030 national climate pollution reduction goal

In 2009, President Obama committed the United States to a 2020 climate pollution reduction goal of 17 percent below 2005 greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions levels. The 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report determined that the Climate Action Plan has “the potential to bring emissions within the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels.”

The aforementioned U.N. report makes it clear that additional dramatic pollution reductions levels will be essential after 2020 to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The administration should adopt an ambitious 2025/2030 national climate pollution reduction target within the context of a new international climate agreement to be finalized in 2015. The agreement should include significant new GHG reduction contributions from all of the major economies.

2. Extend wind, solar, and other renewable energy tax incentives through 2020

Federal tax incentives for wind power expired in 2013 and will expire for solar electricity in 2016. This creates market uncertainty for investors and leads to boom-bust investment cycles. A study by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that renewable electricity sources received only 9 percent of total federal support between 1950 and 2010, compared to 60 percent for the oil and gas industry. President Obama should urge Congress to extend these tax incentives for renewable technologies until 2020.

3. Permanently protect the Arctic Ocean from high-risk oil production

Shell and ConocoPhillips want to tap the Arctic Ocean’s subsea wealth by drilling for oil. However, this undeveloped area’s absence of coastal infrastructure, severe lack of oil spill response capacity—called “minimal at best” by the U.S. Coast Guard—and harsh climate make responsible oil production impossible. Despite $4.5 billion in preparations, Shell’s 2012 Arctic operations collapsed after a series of accidents and failures, showing that even world-class oil companies can be confounded by the unforgiving Arctic Ocean. The risk posed by offshore drilling there is simply incompatible with Northern Alaska’s ecosystem-dependent communities. Arctic oil should remain in the ground.

4. Keep American oil at home

The United States now produces more oil—and uses less—leading to a nearly one-third decrease in oil imports. This change makes us less vulnerable to price spikes caused by sudden foreign oil supply disruptions. The oil industry, however, would squander this newfound energy security and price stabilization by lifting the 1975 ban on crude oil exports. This step would enrich oil companies by enabling them to sell their oil at the higher world price but would increase oil imports, reducing our energy security. Removal of the Alaskan oil export ban in 1996 raised West Coast gasoline prices. President Obama should publicly oppose demands to allow the export of domestically produced oil.

5. Establish a carbon pollution reduction plan to guide the management and conservation of America’s public lands

Public lands and waters—including national parks and forests, rangeland, and coastal areas—produce huge amounts of the fossil fuels responsible for climate change. But this fossil-fuel production is outpacing public lands’ ability to naturally store carbon pollution. A recent CAP analysis determined that these places are the source of 4.5 times more carbon pollution than they currently absorb.

To reduce this contribution to carbon pollution, the administration should develop a carbon reduction plan for public lands that would both decrease the carbon pollution generated by fossil fuels taken from public lands and increase the lands’ ability to naturally absorb it. The strategy could include establishing a clean resources standard for public lands, reducing methane and other emissions during fracking and other forms of resource extraction, and raising the minimum coal lease bid to account for some of the costs of carbon pollution. Moreover, protection and restoration of public lands would help them naturally absorb more carbon pollution.

If President Obama were to pursue these measures, we would achieve additional pollution reductions beyond those that will result from the complete implementation of the Climate Action Plan. These steps would also increase energy security, help maintain more stable gasoline prices, and protect fragile places such as the Arctic Ocean from fossil-fuel pollution. Together, they would leave our health, climate, economy, and environment far better off than when President Obama took office on January 20, 2009.

Status report: Our top 10 priorities for President Obama’s second term

1. Reduce carbon pollution by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020

Status: The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, proposed an effective carbon pollution standard for new power plants in September 2013, and will propose a standard for existing power plants in June 2014. This standard should require a 25 percent cut in carbon pollution to meet the 2020 goal. The methane task force must also develop significant reduction standards.

2. Reduce “short-lived climate pollutants” by including a phase out of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the Montreal Protocol

Status: The United States reached important agreements with China and the G20 countries on a phasedown, but the negotiations are ongoing.

3. Finalize an international climate protection treaty

Status: Negotiations about a new international climate agreement for 2015 are ongoing.

4. Raise dedicated revenue to help communities become more resilient to the impacts of global warming

Status: The Obama administration created a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Climate and Preparedness Task Force on Climate Preparedness to focus on community resilience. It should recommend that the administration develop a source of revenue to assist communities and ideas to pay for it.

5. Issue a new ozone smog health standard

Status: A long-overdue administration effort to adopt more protective safeguards from this deadly pollutant is still pending.

6. Limit the production of dirty tar sands oil by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline

Status: President Obama said that Keystone would be approved “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” The final decision is pending until a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and federal agency consultation are released, likely later this year.

7. Reduce pollution and oil use from vehicles

Status: The EPA has proposed “Tier 3” protective standards and final safeguards are expected this winter.

8. Use appropriate federal lands and waters to support clean energy deployment

Status: The Obama administration set a goal of new renewable energy on public lands powering 6 million homes by 2020. Several large new projects have already been approved and the first offshore wind energy lease sale was held last August.

9. Establish federal policies that increase demand for clean electricity

Status: A presidential memo directs federal agencies to buy 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will lend funds to rural electric co-ops for renewable and efficiency investments.

10. Reform the tax code to favor clean, renewable energy and end Big Oil tax breaks

Status: This reform was proposed in the fiscal year 2014, but there has been no action in Congress.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Center’s Public Lands Project. Shiva Polefka is the Research Associate for Ocean Policy at the Center.

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