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Report: U.S. Can Make Good on Climate Pledge — Barely

When the U.S. arrives at the international climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the year it will bring to the table its pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent under 2005 levels over the next decade.

The World Resources Institute, or WRI, a global environmental sustainability think tank, released a report Wednesday showing how the U.S. can make good on its pledge and possibly exceed it. Doing so, however, may involve strengthening controversial emissions cuts in the works, cuts that largely are expected to be watered down and challenged in court before taking effect, possibly later this year.

The U.S. will need to expand the use of renewables in order to achieve its climate goals, according to the World Resources Institute.
Credit: epSos.de/flickr

To achieve its Paris emissions pledge, the Obama administration is betting that its proposed Clean Power Plan, slated to be finalized this summer, will deliver carbon dioxide emissions cuts from existing coal-fired power plants as promised. The White House also is relying on its Climate Action Plan to cut emissions and increase efficiency in other sectors of the economy.

Those plans alone will do just enough to make good on cutting emissions 26 percent, the report says, but reaching or exceeding 28 percent will likely involve strengthening the Clean Power Plan and cutting emissions in other areas not included in the Obama administration’s plans.

The U.S. also has the ability to slash its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by more than half over the next 25 years, but only if Congress puts a price on carbon, the report says.

“There is a limit to what can be done with federal authority combined with state action,” WRI senior fellow Karl Hausker said. “Serious people both on the left and right know that putting a price on carbon is part of a long-term solution. Carbon prices reduce emissions. It’s also compatible for economic growth.”

With Congressional action on carbon pricing unlikely in the near future, the Obama administration is relying on state action and its own power to regulate emissions to meet its Paris climate pledge.

“The U.S. has set an ambitious target, but it is achievable,” Hausker said. “The U.S. will need to take action on some emissions sources not yet addressed.”

One of those emissions sources is the fossil fuels industry, whose oil and gas extraction operations leak large amounts of methane for which there are few federal emissions standards, the report says. It recommends that the federal government boost methane emissions standards for natural gas operations and plug the leaks.

The report also recommends federal and state governments expand residential and commercial energy efficiency programs, expand cuts in emissions of the refrigerant hydrofluorocarbon, improve industrial emissions standards, and boost passenger car and heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards while reducing travel demand.

Other recommendations include establishing emissions standards for new airplanes, boosting carbon sequestration in forests and cutting methane emissions from coal mines, landfills and agriculture.

In responding to WRI’s recommendations, White House Deputy Director of Climate Policy Rick Duke said the administration is confident the U.S. will hit all the emissions targets it has set and the Clean Power Plan will be finalized despite legal challenges.

As states figure out for themselves how they will implement the Clean Power Plan, they can follow some of those energy efficiency and emissions reductions recommendations on their own. One state eyeing such energy efficiencies is New York, which is modernizing its electric power system under a program called Reforming the Energy Vision.

The U.S. and many other nations will gather in Paris in December for climate negotiations aiming to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming under 2°C, or 3.6°F. Credit: Intel Free Press/flickr

“One of the great things about (the Clean Power Plan) is that states have a tremendous amount of latitude as to how to implement the proposed rules,” Richard Kauffman, chairman of Energy and Finance for the state of New York and chairman of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said.

As New York is on the brink of banning a natural gas production method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Kauffman said the state is trying to transition its electric power grid from one that operates based on centralized power plants serving customers far away to one that uses more local or “distributed” sources of energy, including local natural gas generators and rooftop solar.

Using local natural gas-fired power generators is more energy efficient than using distant power plants and puts pressure on regulators to allow wider use of rooftop solar and other renewables that generate power in people’s yards, Kauffman said.

A smarter, more efficient power grid can be built, but regulations need to be updated to allow it, he said.

“The problem here is not the technology,” Kauffman said. “The technology is here today. The regulatory structure which inhibits its adoption” needs to be overhauled.

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