United States action on climate change Media Release

Jun 25, 2013 - 3:05pm

In his State of the Union address, President Obama challenged Congress to present him with a market-based mechanism to price and limit pollution. “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” the President said. Five months later, at 330am on June 26 (Sydney time) President Obama is expected to announce a range of new policies to constrain carbon emissions from the world’s second largest polluting nation. 

The stakes are high. While the US has been a lead nation on investment in renewable and other clean energy sources, this position is now being lost to the emerging clean energy superpower, China. In the ranking of G20 countries best prepared for the global low-carbon economy, the US recently dropped from 8th to 11th. At the same time China leaped ahead from 7th to 3rd. (For more on rankings see The Climate Institute/GE Low-Carbon Competitiveness Index.

Despite the lack of Congressional action to date, last year the Obama Administration made regulations to double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles and light trucks (on 2010 levels) by 2025. The US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that this rule change will save nearly 2 billion tonnes of emissions. 

President Obama has the power to extend these kinds of actions to other sectors. 

The EPA has already proposed emission standards for new electricity generation that would effectively ban investments in conventional coal plants. Extending these kinds of regulations to existing power stations, industrial facilities, gas systems and other major sources of pollution can significantly reduce emissions. 

Similarly, the Administration can improve energy efficiency standards for domestic and other appliances. New efficiency standards for appliances such as microwave ovens, walk-in coolers and freezers, electric motors, and commercial refrigeration equipment have been stalled for more than a year. Each month of delay in approving these standards costs consumers hundreds of millions in lost energy and carbon emission savings. 

The President’s statement on Tuesday (Wednesday morning Australian time) will also focus attention on the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, a topic the US has taken significantly more seriously since “Superstorm” Sandy ravaged New York last year. 

Earlier this month, New York City put out a sweeping adaptation plan for the city, which calls for floodwalls and levees to protect vital infrastructure and coastal communities; recommends storm-surge barriers; and various natural barriers such as sand dunes, beaches and wetlands around the outer boroughs of Manhattan. The price tag is over $21 billion, with three-quarters of the funds already identified. These kinds of policies will be an ongoing focus for governments at all levels, because while the costs of adaptation may seem high, the costs of the impacts are significantly steeper. According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, every $1 invested in community resilience reduces extreme weather damage by $4. 

President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently stated that: “Recent disasters involving extreme weather events (including Hurricane Sandy, extreme drought, and rampant wildfires) have underscored the nation’s vulnerability and the urgent need for preparedness.” Their recommendations include the development of an infrastructure plan that synergistically addresses climate risks and economic productivity. 

Key facts about US emissions:
  • Recent energy technology and economic trends have led to a decline in US emissions, which peaked in 2000. In 2010, emissions were 6 per cent below 2005 levels. This compares to the US emission target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. (On 2000 levels, as used by Australia, this target is a 21 per cent reduction.)
  • The US has one of the largest renewable energy capacities in the world. In 2012, despite a total fall in investment due to policy uncertainty, the US added more capacity from wind energy than any other technology. Total investment in 2012 was $39 billion. The industry employs around 611,000 people. 
  • The US government has passed ambitious emission standards that will see the fuel economy of passenger vehicles double by 2025. This will have a significant impact, since transport emissions account for 27 per cent of US emissions (compared to 15 per cent in Australia), with eight cars for every 10 Americans.
  • In 2012, a drought covered nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States, impacting 164 million people and leading to multi-billion dollar agricultural losses. Last year also saw the Atlantic basin experience an above-average hurricane season, in terms of intensity of the storms, for a third consecutive year. Hurricane Sandy claimed over 100 lives and significantly damaged infrastructure, roads, homes across the northeast US and the Caribbean.
For a table of comparison between US and Australian climate policies, please download the full brief below. 

For more information 

Kristina Stefanova | Communications Director, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299
Erwin Jackson | Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299 

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