You are here

Q&A: How Far Can Existing Regulations & Authority Reduce GHGs?

A new WRI report looks at what greenhouse gas emissions reductions could be achieved through federal and state regulations that are already in place.

WRI has spent the last six months conducting an analysis of what emissions reductions could be achieved using existing federal regulations and state actions. Why did you undertake this analysis?

Congress has been discussing various climate and energy proposals for the past several years. We have a good sense through our analysis what the legislative proposals would accomplish, but we thought, “what if we don’t get the legislative action soon? What can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using existing tools?” We wanted to know what federal agencies across the spectrum can do under existing law, and what reductions states can achieve based on the actions that they’ve already announced.

Based on the reductions you found federal agencies and state programs could achieve, what are the key findings of the analysis?

Read the Report

We found that the federal and state tools we currently have at our disposal can get us significant reductions, but without legislation and a cap on emissions we cannot reach our ultimate goals, especially in the long term.

Federal agencies such as the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Aviation Agency have tools right now that can lead to substantial reductions, for example through the Clean Air Act.

As for the states, 25 have already announced some kind of action, through legislation, executive orders from governors and regional cap-and-trade programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Actions in these states, if followed through, could complement federal action and lead to additional emissions reductions.

By pairing federal agency and state action, in 2016 the United States could be on track to meet President Obama’s commitment of a 17% reduction in emissions by 2020. However, we find that by 2020, reductions will trail off and likely fall short of the commitment by around 3%, unless existing regulatory tools are augmented.

2050 is a key benchmark for looking at emissions reductions. What does your analysis tell us about this long-term outlook?

Our analysis only goes out to 2030 because there is a great deal of uncertainty in projecting technological advancement into the future. State and federal interventions, while important, provide very little certainty as to a 2050 outlook when compared to a long-term declining cap on emissions. This reinforces the need to have both legislative and regulatory tools at our disposal to reduce emissions.

With a regulatory approach, it’s very difficult to tell how things will play out. The EPA and other federal agencies, and individual states, have a range of powers to catalyze cost-effective emissions reductions and energy savings, but it is not clear how those authorities will be used, or what Congress may do to limit executive action to reduce emissions. It is imperative that we preserve these important tools that have potential to achieve significant reductions.

In contrast, federal legislation that places a cap on emissions would give much more certainty. That’s one of the reasons many U.S. businesses are calling for comprehensive climate and energy reform – it gives them more certainty to make investment decisions in the future.

The analysis describes three different scenarios. What are they?

Without legislation, reductions are possible but depend on technological advancement and political will. Due to this lack of certainty, we developed three different scenarios that represent three separate levels of ambition. We refer to these as “Lackluster,” “Middle of the Road,” and “Go Getter.”

At the federal level, we looked at the existing regulatory tools that can be brought to bear, as well as how technically feasible these actions would be:

  • “Lackluster”: Low end of technical feasibility and regulatory ambition;
  • “Middle of the Road”: Middle range of technical feasibility and regulatory ambition; and
  • “Go Getter”: Higher end of technical feasibility and greater regulatory action.

Alongside the federal scenarios we developed state scenarios. As a general matter, state policies already in place have been incorporated into our business-as-usual projections. Therefore, we developed three scenarios meant to capture the range of ambition we might see at the state level:

  • “Lackluster”: Economy-wide reduction targets set by state legislation;
  • “Middle of the Road”: Economy-wide reduction targets set in state legislation and executive orders; and
  • “Go Getter”: Economy-wide reduction targets set by legislation or executive order, or to be implemented through regional cap-and-trade programs under development.

Even in the best-case “Go Getter” scenario, federal and state action alone will not get the United States to the 17% emission reduction target. And none of our scenarios reach the levels of reduction that the latest climate science suggests will avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Some of the greatest reductions could come from federal regulations and standards on power plants. Why?

Power plants are a sector where we’d expect a big share of reductions, largely because much of our energy infrastructure is old and inefficient. There is an enormous opportunity for the federal government to transform the United States’ aging fleet of coal plants into cleaner sources of energy. Evidence of this can be found in the analyses of economy-wide cap-and-trade programs, where we consistently see the greatest levels of reductions coming from the power sector.

The government can clean up these plants with existing tools under the Clean Air Act that have been used for decades to get rid of smog and other pollutants. These are common sense regulations that are important for public and environmental health.

With all the reductions you found that can be achieved by federal and state legislation, is a federal cap on emissions still necessary?

Yes. The bottom line is that we need legislation. As the analysis shows, only legislation can get us the needed emissions reductions. Only legislation can lay out a long-term road map, create certainty, and drive investment in clean energy jobs.

The tools we currently have at our disposal can get us significant and important emissions reductions and need to be preserved. For us, the takeaway is not “either or” but rather “both and.” We need to both preserve the existing tools and enact legislation.

Stay Connected