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First Take: Looking at President Obama’s Climate Action Plan

Michael Obeiter, a Senior Associate at WRI, also contributed to this post.

With today’s announcement of a national climate action plan, President Obama is pushing forward to tackle the urgent challenge of climate change. This is the most comprehensive climate plan by a U.S. president to date. If fully and swiftly implemented, the Obama Administration can truly reset the climate agenda for this country.

The plan looks to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions in a comprehensive way and takes on the question of how to protect the country from the devastating climate-related impacts we are already seeing today. With a clear, national strategy in place – and concrete steps to implement it – the administration can protect people at home and encourage greater ambition internationally.

Importantly, the president is recommitting the United States to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. WRI’s recent analysis demonstrates that meeting this target is achievable, but requires ambitious action across many sectors of the economy. WRI identifies four areas with the greatest opportunity for emissions reductions – power plants, energy efficiency, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and methane – which are all specifically included in the plan.

The plan is also notable for addressing climate impacts and encouraging increased international engagement. Together, these steps can help the United States reclaim lost ground on climate change. While there are many details to be worked out, this plan is a welcome step to putting the United States on a pathway to a safer future.

Now, let’s look at some of the specific elements in the plan:

Reducing Carbon Pollution from Power Plants

First off, the president’s plan commits the United States to address carbon pollution in existing power plants. Power plants currently represent one-third of all U.S. GHG emissions, the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States. The president also directs the EPA to move quickly to finalize the proposed carbon dioxide pollution standards for new power plants.

These actions will be important for protecting people’s health and the planet – and WRI analysis finds that they can be implemented in a way that is flexible and cost effective. It will be important for the EPA to act with a sense of urgency in order to meet the U.S. emissions target. Just as important as the timeframe for finalizing these standards is their stringency. Without sufficient ambition, the United States will not be able to achieve the reductions it needs by 2020 and in the years beyond.

Increasing Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

The additional actions and goals that the President has laid out in the plan for renewable energy and efficiency will be important in allowing stringent power plant standards to be achieved in a cost-effective manner.

On energy efficiency, the president announced a new goal to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by a total of 3 billion metric tons through 2030 through new and existing efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. This would be a significant reduction, the equivalent of eliminating nearly two years’ worth of emissions from coal power plants.

Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions, as more efficient equipment uses less energy and therefore saves consumers money. There are dozens of products that are excellent candidates for new and updated efficiency standards – some of which are awaiting approval – and many more ways to capture this low-hanging fruit in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. A recent analysis finds that there are a total of six standards that are waiting for approval. Each additional month of delay on these costs consumers $200 million in lost savings and pumps an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The plan also calls for doubling renewable energy in the United States by 2020 and opening public lands for renewable energy development, to the tune of an additional 10 gigawatts of installed renewable capacity on those lands by 2020. This would be enough energy to power 2.6 million American homes.

This policy is a strong complement to the forthcoming emissions standards, as it could make compliance easier for utilities. The federal government owns roughly 28 percent of land in the United States; selectively opening up some public lands for clean energy projects should help ease siting concerns for utilities and project developers.

Reducing Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Methane

The United States has been working for years to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs under the auspices of the Montreal Protocol. The recent agreement between the United States and China to work together toward this end is an important development in reducing emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. Both chemical and consumer product manufacturers support a planned global phasedown of HFC production and consumption. The plan also acknowledges that there is more the United States can and should be doing to eliminate its domestic emissions of HFCs under the Significant New Alternatives Policy Program. The plan also recognizes the importance of curbing emission of methane, another potent greenhouse gas. The president calls for development of an interagency methane strategy that improves data on methane emissions and identifies opportunities to reduce those emissions.

Preparing for Climate Impacts

Climate impacts are already happening globally. The United States is experiencing rising sea levels along our coasts, droughts in the Midwest, wildfires in Colorado, and torrential rains in the Northeast. These impacts are taking a toll on our homes and our businesses. Drought impacts energy production and agriculture. Sea level rise threatens critical infrastructure and clean water supply. These risks are becoming a reality for people across the country.

In response, the plan aims to help Americans prepare for climate change impacts. Adapting to climate change will require striking the right balance between support and direction from the federal government and locally appropriate solutions. The plan focuses on reducing people’s vulnerability by identifying barriers and reforming policies. These actions can empower states and localities to tailor their adaptation actions to their location-specific climate challenges. It should also help create incentives for businesses to contribute to solutions. As the country rebuilds from Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events of recent years, it will be important to systematically learn what is working and what needs improvement.

International Climate Action

The president calls for greater engagement internationally – and this, too, is critically important. The United States can – and should – be a leader on this global challenge. Climate change will bring significant impacts that will affect our economy and our security.

The United States should re-engage in a purposeful and constructive way, working with the international community to rally toward an effective and ambitious international climate agreement by 2015. Cooperation on climate change—as signified by the recent announcement between the United States and China on HFCs—shows this is an area where collaboration is both necessary and possible. Enhanced U.S. action will catalyze other countries to come forward with a greater sense of ambition and urgency.

Moving Forward with Ambitious Climate Action

Today’s announcement marks a major milestone in the creation of a durable and far-ranging climate plan for the United States. The details matter, of course, so we’ll be watching for more specific information about what the various agencies will do – and how quickly and strongly they take up this challenge.

This plan puts a marker in the ground that the Obama Administration is ready to take climate change seriously. It is a strong and broad approach--one that stakes new ground, but also builds on existing common-sense actions.

The plan makes clear the responsibility that we all have to take action for today’s communities and for future generations.

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