U.S. Must Cut Climate Pollutants

U.S. Must Cut Climate Pollutants

By Daniel J. Weiss - May 21, 2013

Poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but this May could be the scariest because of a recent cascade of alarming news about climate change. On May 9 the planet breeched the 400 parts per million threshold for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in human existence. Nearly one-third of the contiguous United States suffers from severe to exceptional drought. The Mississippi River went from near record low flows in January to floods in May.

A NASA-led modeling study released on May 3 “provides new evidence that global warming may increase the risk for extreme rainfall and drought.” And a brand new assessment of peer-reviewed scientific literature expressing a position on human-induced climate change over the past 20 years found that “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. … [T]he number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW [anthropogenic global warming] is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.”

These ever-louder alarms make it imperative that we take action to reduce carbon and the other pollutants responsible for climate change.

The United States has made some progress toward its 2020 goal “in the range of” a 17 percent reduction of climate pollution below 2005 levels. The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that “[g]reenhouse gas emissions in 2011 were 6.9 percent below 2005 levels,” or slightly more than 40 percent toward reaching the 2020 goal. This is due to the Obama administration’s standards to reduce carbon pollution from motor vehicles. In addition, lower electricity demand, and a shift from coal to natural gas and renewable electricity sources also lowered pollution. The Energy Information Administration, however, projects that carbon pollution from the energy sector will rise again beginning in 2017 without additional action as fossil-fuel-generated electricity grows.

President Obama spoke movingly about the urgency to continue tackling climate change as part of his 2013 inaugural and State of the Union addresses. In the latter, he said, "If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take ... to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

The most significant action Obama can take is to set carbon pollution reduction standards for power plants. They are the largest domestic contributor to climate change, responsible for more than one-third of the greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. The EPA proposed a carbon pollution standard for new power plants in March 2012. There was overwhelming public support for it: Americans submitted 3.2 million comments in favor of limiting carbon pollution for both new and existing power plants -- a record number of comments to the agency.

The EPA was supposed to finalize the standard for new power plants by mid-April, though it missed that deadline. The agency must complete that process so it can then develop, propose, and finalize a carbon pollution standard for existing power plants. To meet such a standard, these plants would probably employ some combination of fuel-switching to natural gas or co-firing with biomass; demand reduction via energy-efficiency measures; and develop clean, renewable electricity generation.

In addition to carbon dioxide, there are other more potent greenhouse gases that produce a greater increase in temperature even though they are shorter-lived than CO2. One of these “super pollutants” is hydrofluorocarbons, with emission levels projected to double by 2020. The most effective way to eradicate HFCs would be to include their international phase-down in the Montreal Protocol, a 25-year-old international agreement negotiated under President Reagan that has cost-effectively phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and other ozone layer-depleting substances. Beginning in 2009, the United States, Canada, and Mexico annually proposed to add HFCs to the protocol. However, success will require the hands-on leadership of the president and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Other nations are more aggressively reducing their climate pollution. The European Union’s 2020 goal is to lower its emissions by 20 percent compared with 1990 levels, and it is on pace to achieve it. Australia and New Zealand both have programs to achieve steep reductions in carbon pollution over the next four decades.

Americans strongly support government action to reduce carbon pollution responsible for climate change. A USA Today poll from February 2013 found that “84% of Americans say climate change is definitely or probably occurring; 64% favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions to fix problem.”

The U.S. National Climate Assessment draft predicts that “[g]lobal climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally.”

The United States must promptly implement significant measures to slash its carbon and other pollutants to slow the impact of future climate change. Otherwise, we face a future with many cruel Aprils, scary Mays, and frightening months the rest of the year too due to climate change. 

Daniel J. Weiss is a senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the  Center for American Progress.

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