In the State of the Union address last night, President Obama called to make this “a year of action.” Addressing climate change will require his administration to make that call a reality.

The President noted that “the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.” With that in mind, this year will be key for turning climate commitments into tangible action. The most important task the administration can take is to set greenhouse gas emissions standards for existing power plants—a move that the President highlighted in his speech last night. Ambitious power plant standards are a critical starting point if the United States is to rise to the climate change challenge.

Power Plant Standards: Climate Action Item #1

America’s fleet of coal and natural gas plants represents the single-greatest source of U.S. greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly one-third of total emissions. Reducing power plant pollution, then, is the most significant opportunity for putting the country on track toward a low-carbon future.

As part of the national Climate Action Plan announced last year, President Obama directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set emissions standards for existing power plants. These standards are set to be released by June 1, 2014 and finalized the following year. The question is: Will they be ambitious enough to meet the scale of the climate change challenge?

President Obama pledged to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—a target he re-committed to with the announcement of a national Climate Action Plan in June 2013. WRI research found that “go-getter” standards that reduce power plant emissions 31 percent below 2011 levels by 2020 are a key element of meeting that target. Even greater emissions cuts are necessary over the long-term in order to avoid the worst impacts of a warmer world.

Ambitious Standards Are Achievable and Cost-Effective

Ambitious standards are not only necessary, they’re achievable—particularly if the EPA pursues a flexible approach.

Once the EPA releases its power plant emissions standards, it’s up to individual states to comply. If EPA limits its focus to reducing emissions from individual power plants, the potential for action is limited. On the other hand, the potential for cost-effective reductions is much greater if EPA allows states to achieve the necessary emissions cuts throughout their entire electricity sectors. States could then develop implementation plans that allow companies to comply with the new standards through actions like switching to more efficient fuels, improving energy efficiency at major facilities, and increasing their use of renewable energy.

Under this “flexible” approach, many states are already in a good position to meet even ambitious power plant emissions standards. For example, just by capitalizing on policy and infrastructure opportunities—such as following through on its existing renewable energy plan and increasing the use of its natural gas plants—Minnesota can reduce its power sector emissions 31 percent below 2011 levels by 2020. Other states are in similar situations: Michigan can lowerits power sector emissions by 33 percent by taking advantage of existing policies and infrastructure, while Illinois can shave its emissions by 35 percent.

Evidence also shows that complying with aggressive power plant standards can yield considerable economic benefits. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, carbon dioxide pollution standards for existing power plants may bring as much as $60 billion in social, public health, and economic benefits by 2020. More efficient use of power could not only reduce emissions, but also electricity bills for consumers.

Achieving Meaningful Climate Action

Of course, power plant standards aren’t the only climate action item for the Obama administration. Cutting emissions at the scale necessary requires work across all sectors—in particular, reducing methane leakage from natural gas, improving energy efficiency, and decreasing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), potent greenhouse gases found in refrigerants and air conditioning systems.

As the president stated, “we have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.” The most urgent action the country can take is to move forward with ambitious, flexible standards for fossil fuel plants. This achievement will help position the administration as a climate change leader—both at home and abroad.

  • LEARN MORE: Read WRI's press statement on the 2014 State of the Union Address