Climate change is a long, slow process, but it continues—and in many aspects is accelerating. Solutions to climate change also take a long time to develop, and even longer to effect change. While much has been done, all agree that there is much more to do. What should be the role of the new president and other US leaders in global climate change initiatives?
Officials taking office in January who will lead cities, states, and the nation all face the same reality: The climate is changing, and we are already experiencing costly impacts. They also have the same opportunities to grow the clean-energy economy while lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
US leadership has been crucial to making progress in addressing climate change, but all countries have stepped up find common interest. At the international, national, state, and city levels, there have been significant steps to reduce climate-altering emissions over the past year. In the coming years, more progress is needed.
The swift entry into force of the landmark Paris Agreement on November 4, 2016, less than a year after the Paris climate conference, is the clearest sign yet that the world is mobilizing to fight climate change. US leadership was essential to delivering the Paris Agreement by showing through action at home that the United States was prepared to do its part. President Barack Obama’s personal engagement in diplomacy helped persuade China and others to do their part too. All countries now have a stake in its success, and that transcends any one country.
No one agreement can solve a global challenge as complex as climate change, but Paris has the tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time.
Paris isn’t the only sign of growing momentum for climate action. Last month, governments agreed on a market-based framework for limiting emissions from international aviation, one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. Governments also agreed, with the strong support of industry, to phase down use of some of the most potent greenhouse gases affecting the climate, hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in air conditioning and refrigeration.
Although the new administration’s implementation of the Paris Agreement is unclear, it is in the United States’ interest to continue to be engaged in this process and fulfill our commitments.
The United States set a goal, as its contribution to the Paris Agreement, to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Analysis by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and other organizations shows following through on existing policies will get close to that goal. Since 2005, US net emissions have declined nine percent, in large part because of growth in renewable energy, level electricity demand, improved vehicle efficiency, and a shift in electricity generation from coal to natural gas. But further actions at all levels of government will be needed to continue to reduce US emissions after 2025.
Transportation and electricity generation are responsible for nearly three-quarters of US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and there has been progress in both areas.
Working with the auto and trucking industries, the federal government set new rules that will dramatically increase the fuel economy, and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions, of cars and trucks for decades. The challenge is to expand the deployment of zero-emission vehicles. Electric vehicles make up less than one percent of new US car sales. But as their prices drop and range expands, the adoption rate could accelerate over the next 15 years, spurring important reductions from what is now the largest-emitting sector in the United States.
In the electricity sector, progress is undeniable. Wind and solar generation have grown nearly twelve-fold since 2005. The first new American nuclear generating unit in decades opened this year in Tennessee, and America’s first offshore windfarm will come online off the coast of Rhode Island this fall.
Regardless of its future in the next administration, the Clean Power Plan, which sets emissions targets and then lets states determine the best way to reach them, has already brought stakeholders together in state capitals across the country to discuss strategies to reduce emissions. Through modeling and conversation, stakeholders often realized reductions can happen cheaper and faster than they first expected, and the lessons learned from those conversations will add to the momentum for reductions at the state level. Moreover, if the new administration chooses not to go forward with this regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency will still be obligated to address greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act.
Other ways to continue reducing emissions through federal action include research and development programs and incentives for infrastructure modernization, renewable energy deployment, and carbon capture and storage. Even better would be for Congress to resume the conversation on pragmatic approaches to fight climate change and establish an economy-wide, market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The progress that has occurred at the national and international levels would not have been possible without leadership from state and city stakeholders.
Ten states that are home to a quarter of the US population already have a price on carbon, and another state, Washington, plans to start a market-based mechanism to reduce emissions across its economy in January 2017.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have set greenhouse gas reduction targets, and 29 states require electric utilities to deliver a certain amount of electricity from renewables or alternative sources. New York, which gets a third of its in-state electricity from nuclear power, recently approved a Clean Energy Standard to spur new renewables deployment while also preserving existing zero-carbon nuclear generation.
Many cities are taking steps to improve building efficiency, incentivize smart development, promote electric vehicle adoption, and deploy clean energy. C2ES has partnered with the US Conference of Mayors in a new alliance to encourage city and business leaders to work together on concrete approaches to reduce carbon emissions, speed deployment of new technology, and implement sustainable development strategies.
Policies and actions by states and cities will continue providing us with examples of success—blueprints for the future that can later be adopted on a larger scale.
US leaders, from the president and Congress to states and cities across the nation, have the opportunity—the responsibility—to grow the clean energy economy while lowering emissions.
The world is moving in the right direction, and now it’s up to new leaders at all levels of government to build on and accelerate this progress.
Michael Tubman is director of outreach for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and manages the center’s engagement with the federal government, state governments, and key constituencies. He has more than a dozen years of experience advancing environmental policy and specializes in finding common ground between solutions that work between diverse stakeholders.