The Obama administration needs to act, with or without congressional legislation, in order to meet its short-term goal of reducing emissions of planet warming gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute, a Washington environmental think tank. A combination of federal actions, such as new U.S. EPA regulations on power plants and natural gas systems, as well as state initiatives, can achieve that goal, which the country is currently not on track to meet, the report said.
Emissions reduction pathways identified in the WRI report, which divides the level of ambition into categories such as “go-getter” and “lackluster.”
According to the study, new congressional legislation will be required in order to meet the mid-century goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent or more below 2005 levels by 2050, in order to avoid the most severe consequences of manmade global warming. The current prospects for climate legislation on Capitol Hill are bleak, with the issue having little traction in both the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate following a failed attempt to pass a comprehensive emissions reduction bill, known as a “cap and trade” plan, in 2009.
In his second inaugural address, Obama listed tackling global climate change as one of his top priorities for his second term. The WRI report, which is an update to a 2010 analysis, outlines the actions that the Obama administration can take to combat global warming with or without congressional involvement.
The report recommends that the administration use the Clean Air Act to implement “strong standards” for carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, reduce non-energy sources of emissions, such as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in refrigerators and air conditioners and are a powerful global warming gas. Eliminating HFCs is the biggest opportunity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions behind power plants, the study found.
The report also found that the EPA can take steps to limit emissions of methane, which is another potent global warming gas, from natural gas production using its authority under the Clean Air Act, and that more actions can be taken at the federal level to make U.S. industry and home appliances more energy efficient.
“The administration has multiple ways to move forward with smart policies to reduce U.S. emissions. The best opportunity is to enact new standards for existing power plants, which represent one-third of all U.S. emissions,” said Nicholas Bianco, Senior Associate, WRI, and the lead author of the report, in a press release. “The administration has the ability to put the U.S. on track to meet its commitments, and can do so in a cost-effective and efficient manner.”
Recent trends in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions may make it more feasible for the administration to meet its short-term targets, since reduced economic growth, increased use of cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity, and reduced demand for transportation fuel have reduced U.S. carbon emissions to the lowest level since 1994. These trends are expected to be short-lived however, and the WRI analysis predicts “relatively modest growth” in U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions — largely driven by increases in gases other than carbon dioxide — over the coming decades.
The increased use of natural gas presents a significant opportunity for reducing planet-warming emissions, the report found, since methane and other greenhouse gases can escape into the atmosphere from natural gas drilling and transportation infrastructure.
At the state-level the report found that there are many opportunities to implement measures that would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but that state-actions alone will not be sufficient to reach the near-term and long-term emissions reduction targets that scientists say are needed. According to the report, 29 states have set renewable energy standards, and 20 have energy efficiency standards. Some states, such as California, are moving ahead with ambitious plans to reduce emissions, while others are not pursuing such regulatory approaches.
“The Administration has the tools. We look forward to seeing what steps they take to shift the country to a low-carbon pathway,” said WRI president Andrew Steer.
During his first term in office, President Obama presided over several regulatory moves that are already resulting in emissions reductions, including new fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and light trucks, energy efficiency standards for new appliances, and greenhouse gas regulations for new power power plants.
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