The United States will struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to promised levels by 2020, a report from a prominent think tank warned this week, but the federal government, states and industry already have the means at their disposal to achieve such goals.
The report, by the World Resources Institute, a think tank that focuses on the environment and socioeconomic development, looks at the technical and legal authority President Barack Obama could use to build on the pledge in his inaugural address to address climate change. The United States won’t meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 without taking meaningful action, said the report’s lead author, Nicholas Bianco, a senior associate at the institute.
"The good news is, we have the tools to get there," Bianco said Wednesday in Washington.
The institute’s leadership has met with key figures in the Obama administration, which has signaled it will take aggressive action on global warming in the coming months. The president warned in his inaugural address last month that failure to act "would betray our children and future generations," and he’s expected to expand on the same theme in his State of the Union address next week.
There are four main areas of opportunity where the administration can act without involving Congress, Bianco said. The biggest impact could come by applying higher standards for carbon dioxide emissions to existing power plants – a politically dicey move that’s expected to meet with resistance from industry. Work also can be done to reduce emissions from refrigerants and air conditioners. The World Resources Institute, like the nonprofit organization the Clean Air Task Force, calls for limiting methane emissions in the natural gas production process. Finally, the institute sees plenty of room for improvement by increasing energy efficiency in industrial applications and home appliances.
The Obama administration appears to have in place at the Department of Energy what the institute’s Susan Tierney described as strong "analytic horsepower." The EPA also has the "backbone and vision" to move on those areas of opportunity, said Tierney, an expert on energy policy and economics.
"We really do need to act," said Tierney, a former assistant energy secretary who now serves on the institute’s board of directors. "Doing business as usual is already showing the American citizenry that we have costly actions. The extreme weather events that are so familiar and so devastating in terms of their impact already . . . these are the trends that we’re seeing already associated with a warming climate. The costs of inaction are high; the impacts are real on human lives."
Any move by the Obama administration carries weight in the rest of the world, said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. It’s particularly important to the 90-plus countries that also have pledged to reduce emissions by 2020.
"The international picture right now is very good," Steer said. "As we head toward what the world has committed to do . . . the prospects of getting there are just very much greater if the United States is acting and being seen to act."
Overall emissions from the energy sector are down in the United States, partially because of a sluggish economy and the transition from coal to natural gas. But some sectors are on the rise, a shift that Bianco said was worrying.
"You add that all together and what you find is a much more sobering picture," he said. "So it’s clear more action is necessary."
The report offers similar proposals as those that have emerged from several key environmental and clean air groups, which have been pressing the White House to match the rhetoric of the president’s inaugural address.
As with a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Resources Institute report suggests that states, working within existing regulatory framework, can use their authority to supplement federal actions. The report notes that 29 states already have renewable energy standards and 20 have energy efficiency standards.