A first look at Obama's climate action plan

This story originally appeared at WRI Insights.

With this week's announcement of a national climate action plan, President Obama is pushing forward to tackle the urgent challenge of climate change. This is the most comprehensive climate plan by a U.S. president to date. If fully and swiftly implemented, the Obama administration can truly reset the climate agenda for this country.

The plan looks to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions in a comprehensive way and takes on how to protect the country from the devastating climate-related impacts we already see today. With a clear, national strategy in place – and concrete steps to implement it – the administration can protect people at home and encourage greater ambition internationally.

Importantly, the president is recommitting the United States to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. WRI’s recent analysis demonstrates that meeting this target is achievable, but requires ambitious action across many sectors of the economy. WRI identifies four areas with the greatest opportunity for emissions reductions – power plants, energy efficiency, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane – which are all specifically included in the plan.

The plan is also notable for addressing climate impacts and encouraging increased international engagement. Together, these steps can help the United States reclaim lost ground on climate change. While many details need to be worked out, this plan is a welcome step to putting the United States on a pathway to a safer future.

Now, let’s look at some specific elements in the plan:

Reducing carbon pollution from power plants

First off, the president’s plan commits the United States to address carbon pollution in existing power plants. Power plants currently represent one-third of all U.S. GHG emissions, the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States. The president also directs the EPA to move quickly to finalize the proposed carbon dioxide pollution standards for new power plants.

These actions will be important for protecting people’s health and the planet – and WRI analysis finds that they can be implemented in a way that is flexible and cost effective. It will be important for the EPA to act with a sense of urgency in order to meet the U.S. emissions target. Just as important as the timeframe for finalizing these standards is their stringency. Without sufficient ambition, the United States will not be able to achieve the reductions it needs by 2020 and in the years beyond.

Increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency

The additional actions and goals that the president has laid out in the plan for renewable energy and efficiency will be important in allowing stringent power plant standards to be achieved in a cost-effective manner.

On energy efficiency, the president announced a new goal to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by a total of 3 billion metric tons through 2030 through new and existing efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. This would be a significant reduction, the equivalent of eliminating nearly two years’ worth of emissions from coal power plants.

Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions, as more efficient equipment uses less energy and therefore saves consumers money. Dozens of products are excellent candidates for new and updated efficiency standards – some of which are awaiting approval – with many more ways to capture this low-hanging fruit in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. A recent analysis finds that six standards are waiting for approval. Each additional month of delay on these costs consumers $200 million in lost savings and pumps an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The plan also calls for doubling renewable energy in the United States by 2020 and opening public lands for renewable energy development, to the tune of an additional 10 gigawatts of installed renewable capacity on those lands by 2020. This would be enough energy to power 2.6 million American homes.

This policy is a strong complement to the forthcoming emissions standards, as it could make compliance easier for utilities. The federal government owns roughly 28 percent of land in the United States; selectively opening up some public lands for clean energy projects should help ease siting concerns for utilities and project developers.

Image of Obama from mistydawnphoto via Shutterstock.

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