With full implementation of the President’s climate action plan — and a little bit of luck — America can hit Obama’s 2020 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the takeaway from the 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report just published by the White House.
The 2020 pledge, made to the United Nations in 2010, calls for cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels. To that end, President Obama laid out a sweeping new plan earlier this year, using executive authority already in place, to do everything from cut greenhouse gas emissions, to promote energy and fuel efficiency, conserve forests, and boost investments in climate resiliency.
The graph below from the new report shows how far we can go. The blue shading is where greenhouse gas emissions can go if we stick with what policy was as of September 2012. The green shading above the green dotted line is variability due to “land use, land-use change and forestry” (LULUCF) — the natural capacity of our soil and forests to take in and store carbon dioxide. The green shading below it is where fully realizing the climate plan’s potential could take us. The best case scenario gets us below the red dotted line for the 2020 goal and then some.
The Great Recession, the natural gas boom, and aggressive moves on state renewable energy standards and energy efficiency all contributed to the lull in our greenhouse gas problem. But the effects of the first two won’t last, and if we stick with business as usual, our emissions will start rising again. Three components of the plan are especially crucial to avoiding that possibility:
- Regulations Cutting Carbon Pollution From Power Plants: This is the plan’s centerpiece. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. The EPA already rolled out its regulations for new plants, and the ones for existing plants will hit in 2014.
- Reducing Hydrofluorocarbon Emissions: HFCs are known as a “super pollutant,” causing much more of a greenhouse effect pound-for-pound than carbon dioxide, even though we emit less of them. The Administration is moving forward with both international agreements and domestic executive action to cut these emissions down.
- Reducing Methane Emissions: Also like HFCs, methane packs an outsized greenhouse effect, and leaks from the natural gas industry’s infrastructure are an especially big problem. Obama has called on government agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy for cracking down on methane emissions.
Other big parts of this will be promoting energy efficiency and investment in green technology, and the variability in the graph from land use carbon emissions illustrates the importance of forest conservation and better land management.
The goal of a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels was part of the ill-fated cap-and-trade bill’s larger goal of an 80 percent cut by 2050. But without the bill’s cap-and-trade system in place, or some other equivalent setup, it’s unclear if even a full implementation of the climate action plan could get us all the way to that goal.