Moving Forward on Reducing Carbon Pollution


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 is a critical first step to phasing out other harmful super pollutants, including methane and black carbon. More effort is needed, however, to scale up the ambition of these countries 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.

14 Responses to Moving Forward on Reducing Carbon Pollution

  1. BobbyL says:

    What an Alice in Wonderland view of the Copenhagen meeting in 2009. The main goal of the meeting was to extend a legally binding agreement on reducing reducing emissions beyond 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol was scheduled to end. Depending on who you believe either the US or China or perhaps both were able to undermine this attempt at reducing emissions based on climate science and the result was the US idea of the Copenhagen Accord in which countries specified voluntary reduction goals. It was calculated that if all the goal were met global warming would come close to 4C. Are we supposed to applaud Obama for this state of affairs?

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Joe/Ryan/Dan/Richard — a repeat of the question, for readers’ sakes

    The two most recent posts on this subject, as far as I can tell, both fail to make a comparison between these two aims in a way that places them on an easily-comparable basis for readers:

    * reduce GHG pollution by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020

    * “developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2 deg C” (from an earlier CP post, recently linked in a very recent post)

    Can someone please put these two (different) aims on a comparable basis — for example, by providing the actual level of GHG emissions called for by each aim in 2020?

    (It would be nice to see that comparison — and perhaps even hear CP’s comments on it, and any other context CP can provide — before tomorrow’s talk by the President. That way, readers and viewers can have the “macro context” with which to interpret what President Obama is aiming for, whether it’s sufficient or not, and if not, by how much. Thanks.)



  3. Joe Romm says:

    I think this has been hashed out enough. What’s going on the table Tuesday is the plan to deliver in Obama’s Copenhagen pledge. It should be enough to enable a global deal that could in turn give folks in the 2020s a chance to get really serious.

  4. BobbyL says:

    I agree. Some people are linking Obama’s actions to the Keystone XL pipeline arguing that the main purpose of these actions is to allow him to approve Keystone politically but that is not my take on this.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Joe, aside from hashing it out more (I agree that there’s no need right now to discuss and debate the gap between these two aims, or its implications), I assume that you folks do have the numbers (the GHG emissions for 2020 that the two different aims imply), and it would be most helpful if you could please provide them or remind us of them — helpful to quite a few other readers, not just me. I’d be surprised if more than 10 percent of the audience here could, off the tops of their heads, specify these numbers and thus the size of the difference between them, so providing them (if you can) would help.

    (How many times have you been frustrated with an article in the New York Times, or anywhere else, for example, that doesn’t provide a key relevant comparison in comparable terms, making it easy for the readers? That’s all I’m searching for, presently.)



  6. BobbyL says:

    Jeff, I do have some numbers from the IPCC report of 2007 ingrained in my memory if that is helpful. The developed countries needed to reduce emissions by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2C. You can contrast that with US goal of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. 2005 was year emissions peaked in the US. I think it should be clear that what Obama is doing has nothing to do with staying below 2C. Obviously that goal has been abandoned, if not in word then in deed.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    Deeply Disappointing / Numerical Context Says A lot

    Referring to my earlier comment and question about the comparison between these two (very different) aims:

    * reduce GHG pollution by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020

    * “developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2 deg C”

    … here are the figures I’ve been asking about, to the best of my ability to find them quickly:

    From the EPA’s report, “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011″, Table ES-2, “Recent Trends in U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks”:

    In 1990, the United States’ GHG emissions totaled 6,183.3 million metric tons CO2 Eq., and the net emissions were 5,388.7.

    The comparable figures for 2005 were 7,195.3 and 6,197.4, respectively.

    So, (get this), a 17 percent reduction in the total GHG emissions from 2005 levels results in emissions of 5,972.1. That is the President’s aim, apparently, by 2020.

    Note that this is NOWHERE NEAR the 50 percent reduction from the 1990 level, which would result in emissions of 3,091.7.

    Indeed, note that the 17-percent-below-2005 level results in emissions that are only a very small amount less than the 1990 level itself, let alone a 50 percent decrease from that level.

    Of course, none of this is new, and I’m not (to be sure) the first or even the ten-thousandth person to note this; but I find that lack of this sort of numerical context to be problematic, here, and this context should be available to people who are trying to interpret what the President will say tomorrow.

    Thanks and Be Well,


  8. Jose O says:

    Of course not a single mention about nuclear power. Typical.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well it’s mine. All these executive actions can, and if a Reptilican succeeds Obama, will be done away with, cut back, not properly enforced etc, while Keystone is forever. However, let us hope that I am just too cynical, and that, finally, Obama, after five long years, is going to do something real.

  10. Michael Collins says:

    We do need new laws! Ones that truly commit us as a nation to meeting our self-appointed global leadership role– See the Rolling Stone article, which says it better than I can!

  11. BobbyL says:

    I think you are missing the point. The main hoped for result of Obama’s actions will be that they are sufficient to get a global agreement on capping carbon. The time frame is only 2 1/2 years. He will still be in office.

  12. Superman1 says:

    And, remember what Anderson says many of the experts believe about 2 C – Extremely Dangerous. What does that say about 4 C, which appears much more likely?

  13. Calamity Jean says:

    Nuclear power is too expensive and takes too long to build. Wind delivers many more watts per buck and does it faster.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not if the Western powers, led by the USA, attempt to foist an unfair ‘agreement’ on the rest of humanity, as they did at Copenhagen, following the template forged at various GATT and WTO ‘negotiations’. The bully tactics don’t work anymore, but are, I believe, intended to make a real agreement impossible. We shall see. Needless to say, it would be far preferable if your rather Panglossian vision was correct.