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.


The Obama Administration has made great strides in making the country’s transportation fleet cleaner and more efficient—actions that will both reduce carbon pollution and save drivers money. The combined model year 2012-2025 fuel economy and emissions standards for light-duty vehicles are expected to effectively cut vehicle GHG emissions in half. Having set standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold in model years 2014-2018, the Obama Administration will be working with industry to explore options to make these vehicles even more efficient and set additional standards for future vehicles.

Power Plants

As outlined in a WRI report, power plants represent the greatest source of potential emissions reductions in the United States. The Obama Administration has already met its goal of doubling electric generation from wind and solar sources. Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants that would ensure that future power plants are significantly cleaner than the average new coal plant today. EPA will now turn to reducing emissions from existing power plants, with a draft rule expected by June 2014. These standards should be flexible so that states can achieve significant, cost-effective emissions reductions through a range of options like fuel-switching, energy efficiency measures, or increased generation from renewable sources.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)

Besides power plants, reducing America’s use of HFCs is the next-largest step needed to get the country on track to meet its 2020 emissions-reduction target. The Obama Administration has already begun addressing emissions of these highly potent GHGs through standards that reduce leakage from vehicle air conditioning systems, and it has been actively pushing toward an international agreement to reduce HFCs. Moving forward, the Administration has said that EPA will use its authority to prohibit certain uses of HFCs that would do great damage to the climate, while identifying and approving climate-friendly alternatives.


Last year, EPA implemented rules that will limit the release of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and air toxics that contribute to smog and a wide range of adverse health effects. A co-benefit of these rules is a reduction in methane emissions, resulting from industry actions to comply with these standards. The Climate Action Plan calls for the formation of an interagency methane strategy that will focus on things like improving data and identifying technologies and best practices for reducing emissions. However, as WRI research shows, more can be done to reduce methane leakage from natural gas systems. In fact, methane leakage could be reduced by 67 percent by 2020 using cost-effective, existing technologies.

Energy Efficiency

Since 2009, the Department of Energy has issued 17 new or updated federal appliance and equipment standards, which will help increase annual energy savings by more than 50 percent over the next decade. The Climate Action Plan sets a goal to reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 through additional efficiency standards. However, there are several efficiency standards awaiting approval. These delays have resulted in about 35 million metric tons of additional CO2 emissions since June of 2011, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy.

Looking Beyond 2020

The Obama Administration needs to ambitiously tackle the actions laid out in the National Climate Plan if the United States is to meet its international commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 17 percent by 2020. Our research shows us that this is do-able. However, it also shows that additional actions are necessary to achieve the deep emissions reductions needed by 2030 and beyond to reduce the dangerous effects of climate change, such as droughts, sea level rise, and other extreme weather events. The Obama Administration should take this into account as they determine a post-2020 target as part of the 2015 climate change negotiations.