Providing support for ambitious implementation of the Climate Action Plan to achieve near-term emission reductions and to enable the Obama Administration to put forward an ambitious offer for the 2015 agreement.
New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.
According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.
The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.
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:
President Obama made it abundantly clear during the State of the Union address last night that he will direct his Administration to take on climate change. The president reiterated the urgency for action, citing climate impacts we’re already seeing like record high temperatures, heat waves, drought, wildfires, and floods. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science--and act before it’s too late.”
The president urged Congress to rise to the challenge by pursuing a “bipartisan, market-based solution,” but he also noted that the Administration will take action—with or without Congress. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” the president said.
This statement is especially significant because the Administration can take meaningful actions right now even without new legislation. WRI recently released a report detailing the immediate steps federal agencies can take to combat climate change. The four greatest opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term include:
Tonight, President Obama will address the nation at the State of the Union, laying out his priorities for his second term. Climate change is expected to be high on the list, especially following the Inauguration when the president declared that a failure to respond would "betray our children and future generations."
The president has set a goal for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; however, the country lacks a clear national plan to get there- and to go even further.
This puts the U.S. out of step with most major countries. For instance, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Korea are moving ahead with ambitious emissions targets backed by strong national policies. Even China - which faces real challenges due to its heavy dependence on coal - has targets to rein in carbon emissions and increase its share of renewable energy under its 12th Five Year Plan.
What, then, can the United States achieve, especially with a Congress that is reluctant to act?
The World Resources Institute just released a comprehensive analysis that finds that the Administration can achieve its 17 percent goal by 2020. But, it will take strong leadership and ambitious action.
According to our research, the United States is not yet on track to meet the 17 percent target. However, the country can get there using existing federal laws, provided that the Administration takes ambitious action. We also found that states can play a significant role in reducing GHG emissions and can help supplement federal action.
This report is a legal and technical analysis that explores three levels of ambition for the Administration: “lackluster,” “middle of the road,” and “go-getter.” These scenarios are based on an extensive review of the technical literature on what is possible. The interactive graphic below highlights what can be accomplished through federal action under these scenarios.
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As we’ve seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, epic drought, and wildfires, climate change visibly impacts lives and livelihoods throughout the United States. Global warming’s effects extend beyond people, wildlife, and ecosystems, though: They’re threatening America’s energy infrastructure.
Climate instability directly affects the future security of the U.S. energy sector. For example:
Each successive decade in the last 50 years has been the warmest on record globally, and according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, average temperatures will continue to rise. Energy demand is directly impacted by these temperature increases. A recent study in Massachusetts estimates that rising temperatures could increase demand for electricity in the state by 40 percent by 2030.
As leaders gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos today, signs of economic hope are upon us. The global economy is on the mend. Worldwide, the middle class is expanding by an estimated 100 million per year. And the quality of life for millions in Asia and Africa is growing at an unprecedented pace.
Threats abound, of course. One neglected risk--climate change--appears to at last be rising to the top of agendas in business and political circles. When the World Economic Forum recently asked 1,000 leaders from industry, government, academia, and civil society to rank risks over the coming decade for the Global Risks 2013 report, climate change was in the top three. And in his second inaugural address, President Obama identified climate change as a major priority for his Administration.
For good reason: last year was the hottest year on record for the continental United States, and records for extreme weather events were broken around the world. We are seeing more droughts, wildfires, and rising seas. The current U.S. drought will wipe out approximately 1 percent of the U.S. GDP and is on course to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Damage from Hurricane Sandy will cost another 0.5 percent of GDP. And a recent study found that the cost of climate change is about $1.2 trillion per year globally, or 1.6 percent of global GDP.
Shifting to low-carbon energy sources is critical to mitigating climate change's impacts. Today's global energy mix is changing rapidly, but is it heading in the right direction?
As we enter 2013, there are signs of growth and economic advancement around the world. The global middle class is booming. More people are moving into cities. And the quality of life for millions is improving at an unprecedented pace.
Yet, there are also stark warnings of mounting pressures on natural resources and the climate. Consider: 2012 was the hottest year on recordfor the continental United States. There have been 36 consecutive years in which global temperatures have been above normal. Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise – last year the world added about 3 percent more carbon emissions to the atmosphere. All of these pressures are bringing more climate impacts: droughts, wildfires, rising seas, and intense storms.
All is not lost, but the window for action is rapidly closing. This decade--and this year--will be critical.
Against that backdrop, experts at WRI have analyzed trends, observations, and data to highlight six key environmental and development stories we’ll be watching in 2013.
China and the United States have a lot in common. China’s rapid economic development and America’s industry have turned the two nations into world’s largest energy users, as well as the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. So it’s fitting that experts from these two countries share ideas on how to grow their economies in ways that also protect the environment.
That’s exactly what happened this week when WRI hosted a high-level Chinese delegation in Washington, D.C. The event was part of a larger study tour organized by MIT, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China. More than 20 representatives from Chinese research institutions and central and local government gathered to learn about low-carbon development strategies and policies, with WRI serving as one of the tour’s first stops.
“I spent a great deal of time in China, and I believe very strongly that we have as much or more to learn from you as you have to learn from us,” said WRI’s president, Andrew Steer, to the Chinese delegation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued final rules to reduce air pollution at natural gas wells and other sources in the oil and gas industry. The rules—a New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and National Emissions Standards for hazardous air pollutants—establish the first federal standards for emissions from production wells (natural gas processing plants were already covered). They are designed to limit the release of VOCs and other air toxics that contribute significantly to smog and are associated with a wide range of adverse health effects. (For more on the oil and gas rules, see M.J. Bradley & Associates’ Issue Brief.)
In addition to reducing VOC and air toxics emissions, these rules will help reduce methane emissions from shale gas development. According to the EPA, there are over 11,000 new hydraulically fractured wells each year, and while water-related environmental concerns have received the lion’s share of public attention and are the focus of EPA’s ongoing hydraulic fracturing study, uncontrolled emissions from hydraulic fracturing can negatively impact air quality and the climate.