pacific sunset, © Robert Dietz

U.S. Efforts on Climate Change: The World Can’t Wait for Congress

As the international climate negotiations continue in Paris, we can’t overstate this important point: Given the political climate in the United States Senate, there is virtually no chance of a new, binding treaty on climate change being ratified. It’s depressing, but it is reality. The current Senate can’t even muster a majority who are willing to state that climate change is caused by human activity, let alone a two-thirds majority that would commit to doing something about it. Not to mention the fact that, aside from trade and nuclear deals, the Senate has only ratified one multilateral treaty since 2000. Given these obstacles, it’s critical that the U.S. do as much as it can to cut emissions and combat climate change under our current laws. That’s why the commitment that the Obama Administration sent to Paris relies heavily on the Clean Air Act.

Solar panels, © Brookhaven National Laboratory

What does that commitment entail, and how are we making it happen? The U.S. has pledged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – which would put our emissions about where they were in 1990. We have also pledged to reduce emissions even further (to 25-28% below 2005 levels) by 2025. The centerpiece of this effort is the 2013 Climate Action Plan, an ambitious proposal that includes measures to promote community and natural area resilience and to foster international cooperation, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our experts put together a summary of the elements of the plan last year, and we are pleased to report that a lot of progress has been made since then:

Energy-efficient vehicles and buildings

One major element of the U.S. commitment involves improving energy efficiency and reducing waste, particularly in vehicles and buildings. Over the past several years, the U.S. has raised the fuel economy standards for passenger cars, and is in the process of doing so for trucks and commercial vehicles as well. The Administration has also invested in improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. These include methane from landfills, and gases like hydrofluorocarbons and volatile organic compounds. There is less of these gasses in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but they are particularly powerful at warming the planet. These are all important steps, and each one will make a difference. But the biggest change we can make to reduce carbon emissions will come from changing how we produce power.

Less fossil fuel….

Wind Farm, © NREL

The Climate Action Plan sets new rules for new and existing fossil-fueled power plants. The two keys to this piece of the puzzle are the New Power Plants Rule and the Clean Power Plan. The New Power Plants Rule, finalized in August, requires new coal-fired and natural gas power plants to limit their carbon pollution. The Clean Power Plan—the most ambitious of the Administration’s efforts—sets the first nationwide standards for limiting carbon pollution from existing power plants. This rule will cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 32% nationwide below 2005 levels by 2030. A hallmark of the plan is that it gives states and utilities tremendous flexibility in how to meet this threshold. They can switch to fossil fuel-free power sources, or improve the efficiency of the plants that do burn fossil fuels.

….and more renewable energy

The Clean Power Plan also builds on the Administration’s efforts to deploy additional renewable energy across the country. So far, these efforts have increased solar generation by nearly twenty-fold and tripled wind-powered electricity production since 2009. The goal is to double both of these again by 2020, and the plan includes a number of measures to boost renewable energy, like training military veterans in solar installation and expanding access to solar generation in low-income communities.

Expanding renewable energy is a vital component in combating climate change—but it needs to be smart from the start. This means that a project’s effects on wildlife and habitat must be considered and addressed right from the beginning, not just as an afterthought. Development of wind and solar resources must from the outset consider both how much renewable energy is needed on a given landscape to meet demand, and also what’s required to sustain species and habitat on that landscape. It’s about more than megawatts—we need to be sure that America’s clean energy transition leaves us not only with a healthier atmosphere, but with thriving populations of wildlife and intact ecosystems as well.

The Paris climate negotiations are a good reminder that it’s not enough just to aim for a clean energy future. We also have to pay attention to how we get there. The President’s Climate Action Plan and its associated new policies and proposals have once again made the U.S. a global leader in taking action on climate change. By reducing vehicle and building emissions, revamping our power sector, and finding solutions that place wildlife conservation front and center alongside renewable energy development, we can make real strides against climate change, while also giving wildlife, humans and habitats a better chance at a more stable future.

Eiffel TowerAll Eyes on Paris. This blog is the third in a four-part series on the international climate negotiations in Paris. Our first entry introducing the Paris talks is posted here, and our second, describing wildlife we could lose to climate change, is here. The series will conclude Friday with a summary of the outcomes of the Paris climate negotiations.

Wildlife We Could Lose to Climate Change

The spectacular diversity of creatures that share our warming planet also have a lot at stake in global climate negotiations. If climate change is left unchecked, it could threaten one in six of the planet’s species with extinction.

Learn More »

One Response to “U.S. Efforts on Climate Change: The World Can’t Wait for Congress”

  1. Jana

    Since raising animals for meat a accounts for estimates of 18 % to 51% (see World Watch Institute), why don’t you and other organizations suggest a reduction in meat and dairy products? Are you afraid donors will be upset? Wouldn’t most just want to help more efficiently? I really don’t understand this avoidance by the environmental and animal welfare community.

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