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Debunking 3 Myths About U.S. Emissions

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

The national conversation around climate change has resumed. In both the Inauguration and State of the Union addresses, President Obama devoted considerable time to the issue, including his declaration that “we must do more to combat climate change.”

For some, this call to action may come as a surprise, as multiple recent reports have hailed falling U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, found that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States dropped 13 percent over the past five years.

However, the story is not as simple as it seems. By taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the United States needs to do more to shift to a safer pathway.

Here are three popular misconceptions about U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and the underlying truth behind them:

MYTH #1: The United States can relax because its emissions are down

It’s true that U.S. energy emissions are down today, but reports show that this trend is not expected to continue. While public policy has contributed to the decline, the primary drivers have been the economic slowdown, the low price of natural gas, and reduced demand for transportation fuel. As the U.S. economy continues to improve and natural gas prices rise again, energy-related emissions are expected to rise as well.

Furthermore, non-energy emissions, which account for more than 20 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, are headed in the opposite direction. Leaked methane during natural gas production and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are commonly found in refrigerants are two such examples. Together, these pollutants will drive up overall emissions unless further action is taken.

MYTH #2: The United States is currently on track to meet its 2020 target

The United States has a target to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; but new analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) has found that the United States is currently not on track to meet this goal. Without additional policy measures, the country would only reduce its emissions by 5 percent below 2005 by 2020. (And emission levels would be just 0.3 percent below 2005 by 2035.)

Fortunately, several recent reports—including from WRI, Resources for the Future, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—all confirm that with additional actions the United States can reach its short-term target.

WRI’s new report, Can The U.S. Get There From Here?, identifies four essential actions the administration can take: setting emissions standards for existing power plants; working internationally and domestically to reduce HFCs; implementing new standards to reduce methane emissions from natural gas systems; and updating efficiency standards for appliances and industry.

That said, meeting the 2020 target is just the beginning. Most leading scientific authorities find that the United States would need to reduce emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The United States can make significant progress using its executive authority; but ultimately, it will need additional actions—likely including congressional legislation.

MYTH #3: China’s emissions are rising, so the United States shouldn’t bother doing anything

While emissions have fallen in the United States, they are on the rise around the globe. According to early estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatons in 2011, a 3.2 percent increase over 2010. China currently generates the most greenhouse gas emissions in the world, with emissions from other developing countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil, also growing.

With that in mind, some have argued that the United States should not act until China and other emerging economies do.

But, this is truly flawed logic.

First off, China has numerical targets, embedded into its 12th Five-Year Plan, to rein in its carbon intensity and increase its share of renewable energy. Consider, even though global investment in renewable energy fell in 2012, China’s investment actually grew by 20 percent, to $67.7 billion. This is more than 50 percent greater than U.S. investment of $44.2 billion.

Likewise, China’s new leadership has indicated that it recognizes the importance of making “ecological progress” and faces domestic pressure to do so. An official in China’s Ministry of Finance even just announced that the country will introduce a carbon tax that could help curtail its emissions. Further, it is clearly within China’s national self-interest to enhance energy security, drive economic growth, and reduce risks from climate change.

Perhaps more importantly, the reality is that it’s also in America’s self-interest to reduce emissions. New standards can drive innovation and provide access to new economic markets. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that investors will spend $1.9 trillion on renewable energy production between 2012 and 2018. And right now, the United States is falling behind.

As President Obama said at the State of the Union, “As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”

What’s Next?

President Obama also said that if Congress doesn’t act on climate, he would instruct his Cabinet to come up with a plan to do so. And it’s clear that that the administration has the tools in hand to make a significant dent in U.S. emissions.

To get on a safer course, the United States needs to reduce its carbon pollution and expedite the shift to clean energy. These actions will benefit the United States and the world. It’s time to get moving.

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