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New Climate Action Report: U.S. Can Reach its Emissions-Reduction Goal, but Only With Ambitious Action

Yesterday, the Obama Administration released the sixth U.S. Climate Action Report (CAR6) for public review, to be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in January 2014. The report, which all developed countries are required to complete, outlines U.S. historical and future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, actions the country is taking to address climate change, and its vulnerability to climate change impacts. This report follows the President’s recently announced Climate Action Plan, which, as the CAR6 report shows, could enable the United States to meet its international commitment of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—if it acts ambitiously, that is.

However, as the report acknowledges, U.S. government agencies will need to propose new rules and take other steps to implement the Climate Action Plan. CAR6 factors in this uncertainty and shows that implementation of the Climate Action Plan will result in reductions in the range of 14 to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (not taking into account land use). As WRI found in our report, Can The U.S. Get There From Here?, the Obama Administration can achieve a 17 percent emissions-reduction target only by taking ambitious “go-getter” action.

Now is a good time to reflect on what the United States has done over the past four years and what still needs to happen across the major emissions sources in order meet the national emissions-reduction goal and curb the effects of climate change.

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Addressing Carbon Pollution from Power Plants Is Vital for Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change

Future U.S. power suppliers will need to limit their carbon pollution, thanks to new standards announced today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The proposed emissions standards for new power plants are an important measure in implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan (announced in June) to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming.

EPA’s announcement comes against the backdrop of our deepening understanding of the science of climate change. It also arrives as we witness multiple extreme weather events that present a vivid picture of what we are likely to experience in a changing world. This summer, we saw record rainfalls on the southeast coast, massive wildfires in California and Idaho, and most recently, deadly flooding in Colorado. These extreme events--to say nothing of their massive economic cost--remind us of why the United States has an obligation to cut its emissions.

As we’ve previously written, the President’s plan recommits the United States to meeting its international commitment of reducing its GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. With these new standards--along with additional recent steps toward increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions of potent greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons and methane--the Administration is making progress in all of the sectors WRI identified in our report earlier this year.

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President Obama’s Climate Action Plan: Can it Shift the World Away from Coal?

While reactions to President Obama’s newly announced climate plan have focused on domestic action, the plan actually has potentially significant repercussions for the rest of the world. These repercussions will come in part through his commitment to limit U.S. investments in new coal-fired power plants overseas. If fully implemented, the plan will help ensure that the U.S. government channels its international investments away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. The move sends a powerful signal—and hopefully, will inspire similar action by other global lenders.

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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:

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New Data Reveals Rising Coal Use

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.

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