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Is it too Late to Combat Climate Change?

This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Insiders blog.

Climate change impacts are already being felt in the United States and around the world. The latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report confirms that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hit an all-time high last year.

Is it time to give up on reducing emissions? Absolutely not.

Better to Pursue Climate Action Now

While things may look bad today, unchecked global warming will exponentially increase the human and economic toll of responding to a permanently altered planet. A recent report from the World Bank outlines the devastating effects of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial levels: flooding of coastal cities, risks to food production, unprecedented heat waves, increased frequency of killer storms, and more. This is not the future that we want to leave our children and grandchildren. Nor can we simply adapt to this future – even if we wanted to.

The IEA makes it clear that acting now will be less costly than waiting until later on. We should be moving toward a low-carbon future, investing in low-carbon energy systems, and preparing our infrastructure for oncoming climate impacts. According to the IEA, delaying action would increase the costs by having to retrofit energy sources and risking their becoming obsolete. The IEA lays out four sensible measures that countries can undertake to curb growth in GHG emissions by 2020—and which come at no net economic cost. Meanwhile, the cost of extreme weather and climate events are mounting. New data from NOAA reveals that in 2012 there were 11 extreme weather events in the United States costing more than $1 billion each, for a total of $110 billion combined—the second-highest economic toll in one year, behind 2005, since 1980.

Furthermore, as I testified before Congress in February, America’s energy infrastructure is vulnerable to more extreme weather and other climate-related impacts. For instance, in the United States, more than 280 electric power plants, oil and gas refineries, and other energy facilities are in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Similarly, there are 347 coal-fired power plants in 43 states that are vulnerable to water supply or demand concerns that are likely to be exacerbated by our warming world.

The U.S. Response

The U.S. Administration has the ability to respond and make deeper cuts in U.S. emissions—and it can do so in a way that is smart and cost-effective.

According to WRI’s analysis, only with ambitious action will the United States meet its commitment of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Not only will this help protect people at home, it will send important signals to the world that the United States is ready to lead on this issue.

Some people have argued that U.S. emissions are down today, so we don’t need to bother with additional actions. But, this is highly flawed logic. First off, the trend of declining U.S. emissions, which has been largely driven by the economic downturn and switching from coal to natural gas, is not expected to last. There are already signs that with slightly higher natural gas prices, many energy producers will move back to coal. Furthermore, the main reductions have been in carbon dioxide emissions, which only make up a piece of total U.S. greenhouse gases. Finally, even though emissions are down, the global trajectory is still headed in the wrong direction—and the United States is still the world’s second-largest emitter behind China.

Clearly, additional actions are needed.

The Steps Ahead

According to our analysis, the U.S. Administration can implement several policies to avoid future increases in emissions and bend the curve even further. These include: implementing standards for new and existing power plants; cutting hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) emissions from refrigerators and appliances; addressing fugitive methane from natural gas systems; and improving energy efficiency in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. These actions can all be achieved using executive authority and without additional Congressional legislation.

Some actions are already underway. The U.S. and China recently announced an agreement to work on phasing down HFCs through the Montreal Protocol. This is a welcome development that would reduce a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2. The Administration can also act without waiting for an international agreement by using its authority under the Clean Air Act to address HFCs domestically.

Moreover, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants account for one-third of the U.S. total, representing the greatest opportunity for emissions reductions. Last year, the EPA announced plans to put in place greenhouse gas standards for new power plants. These rules should be finalized—and soon. The Administration should then put in place emissions standards for existing power plants, which it has the authority to do under the Clean Air Act.

There are multiple indications that the Obama Administration is actively considering the next steps it’s planning to take on climate change. The steps above would be a good place to start.

Not only are these actions reasonable, science-based, and affordable, they would protect the welfare of people at home and around the world.

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