“2014 was the warmest year on record,” noted President Obama during last night’s State of the Union address. “Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does—14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.”
2014 certainly was the hottest year on record, but it’s also been one of the hottest for U.S. climate action commitments. The country entered into an historic agreement with China, promising to reduce its emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The White House made a $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which is expected to become the main channel for securing and distributing the finance needed to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. And the administration built upon the national Climate Action Plan announced in 2013, putting forward a proposal to reduce emissions from power plants and, just last week, a commitment to curb methane leaks from natural gas production.
The president reiterated his commitment to combating climate change during last night’s address, noting that “…if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.” Mitigating these impacts means turning the commitments of 2014 into tangible action in 2015.
Curbing Climate Change Domestically
Following through on 2014 pledges will require strong domestic action as well as international leadership. The administration’s biggest task for 2015 is to continue implementing the National Climate Action Plan. Reducing emissions across sectors is not only imperative for preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change, but for seizing economic opportunities.
Four areas will be particularly important in 2015 for spurring climate action and economic growth:
Power Plant Rules: Power plants are responsible for a full one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so they represent the single-greatest opportunity for domestic climate action. The EPA put forward a proposal in 2014 for the nation’s existing power plants, which, if adopted, would reduce power sector carbon pollution by 30 percent by 2030. In 2015, the EPA should finalize and strengthen these standards. WRI analysis finds that for many states, complying with the proposed power sector emissions standards is not only achievable through existing policy and infrastructure opportunities like state renewable energy portfolios, but is also cost-effective.
Reducing Methane Emissions: Just last week, the administration announced a goal to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Methane, which is leaked at various stages throughout the natural gas production chain, is at least 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While the U.S. EPA has identified the actions it plans to take to achieve these reductions, expanding the focus to include existing natural gas infrastructure would provide even more cost-effective emissions reductions. Studies show that if companies adopted best practices to rein in methane emissions from natural gas production, they could save at least $1 billion per year.
HFCs: Phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful greenhouse gases commonly used as refrigerants, is another critical step for the United States to meet its goals of reducing emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 26-28 percent by 2025. The EPA can make further strides on HFCs in 2015 by building out its SNAP program, which mandates that companies use approved alternatives to HFCs that have much lower warming potential. Some businesses are already saving money by phasing down their use of HFCs—Heineken, for example, saved 15 percent on the price of its coolers once it purchased HFC-free coolers on a large scale.
Energy Efficiency: Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has issued new or updated standards covering more than 30 products, which could save Americans nearly $450 billion in lower electricity bills between now and 2030. DOE can help further reduce energy usage by moving forward on additional standards still in its pipeline.
Building Momentum for International Action
Making good on the promises of 2014 will help position the United States as a global leader on climate action, which can build momentum for a strong international climate agreement in Paris in 2015. That leadership will enable the United States to create partnerships and spur climate action by all countries. Steps like the recent U.S.-China agreement and the U.S. pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund are essential to securing a solution to the most significant global challenge of the 21st century – as well as seizing the economic opportunities that come with action.
A Legacy of Climate Action?
President Obama’s address focused on U.S. success stories—overcoming the recession, fighting terrorism, expanding access to education and more. The administration has the opportunity to turn climate change into one of those success stories. It can start by transforming its proposals into positive results.