US steps up action on climate change Media Brief

May 30, 2014 - 1:20pm

On Monday 2 June, United States President Barack Obama is expected to announce new rules to reduce carbon pollution from American coal and gas power plants. It’s the latest effort by the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. 

The new rules will add to existing federal regulations, state-based carbon pricing and renewable energy investment which have helped US emissions fall 10 per cent since 2005. Nonetheless, rising gas prices have driven increased use of coal-fired power, resulting in a 2.4 per cent increase in emissions from energy use over the last year. These actions and others in the pipeline are necessary to put the US on track to achieve its target to cut national emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.

Obama uses regulation to cut fossil fuel emissions 

The Obama Administration is making progress on the national Climate Action Plan the White House launched last year, which includes development of the following: 

  • Next week’s proposed emission limits on existing fossil fuel power plants, currently producing one-third of total US emissions.  These limits are expected to reduce carbon pollution from more than 1000 coal and gas generators while allowing states to develop their own strategy to achieve this goal. For example, emissions may be avoided through energy efficiency and renewable energy. The rules are to be finalised within a year, and states have a further year to develop their strategies.
  • Emission limits on new coal and gas plant, which will require any new coal generators to include carbon capture and storage. These rules will be finalised in January 2015, but will apply to any construction starting after the date of proposal (September 2013).
  • Stronger regulation to reduce methane emissions (25 times more potent than carbon dioxide) from oil and gas production.
  • Emission standards for heavy trucks—responsible for 20 per cent of American transport emissions—for implementation by 2018.
  • Reducing the use of super-potent hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) through regulation and developing climate-friendly substitutes in air conditioning, refrigeration and other uses.
  • Strengthening energy efficiency standards for equipment and buildings.
  • Requiring all federal agencies to source 20 per cent of their electricity from renewables by 2020. The federal government, the single largest energy consumer in the US, has already cut its emissions by 15 per cent since 2008. 
These actions build on earlier efforts, including rising emission standards for passenger vehicles and light trucks, tax credits for renewable energy and stimulus spending that financed more than $90 billion in clean energy investments.

Renewable energy is a booming industry 

Twenty-nine US states have mandatory renewable energy targets, while another eight have voluntary targets. Twenty have binding energy efficiency targets. These, combined with private sector investment in new areas like solar panel leasing, electric vehicles, smart grids and electricity storage, are driving growth in renewable electricity production, clean technologies and energy efficiency. 

For example, in 2013 the US added more than 4.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic capacity, a 41 per cent increase over the previous year (and about 1.5 times Australia’s total solar PV capacity). In the past five years, wind and solar power use has more than doubled; renewables now contribute 13 per cent of U.S. electricity. 

With a new home installing solar panels every four minutes, solar jobs have risen to 120,000, nearly a quarter of an estimated 600,000 renewable energy jobs. Energy efficiency services employ another 380,000 Americans.

Carbon markets gather momentum

Nine northeastern states are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system that limits electricity emissions. Since it began in 2005, the RGGI has reduced electricity emissions by 40 per cent and raised US$1.5 billion, which is used for renewable energy programs, assisting consumers with power bills and adding to states’ general funds. 

In January 2014, the RGGI tightened the limit on emissions by 45 per cent, which has increased permit prices by one-third—from US$3 to $US4 per tonne (no permits are provided free). California, the world’s eighth largest economy, launched its emission trading scheme in January 2013, and this year linked it with the ETS operating in Quebec, Canada. Californian carbon prices average about US$11.50. 

New federal rules for power plant emissions are expected to spur more states to explore carbon trading to meet their obligations at lowest cost.

Military prepare for climate ‘conflict catalyst’ 

The defense establishment is sounding alarms about the security risks of climate change. The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 warns climate change is a “catalyst of conflict” that aggravates global instability and puts greater demands on military operations and military facilities. 

The military has also put significant efforts into reducing its own emissions. It is researching advanced biofuels, improving its energy efficiency and installing renewable energy at military bases. These moves also reduce costs and improve energy security, particularly in environments where fuel transport can put troops in danger.

A powerful minority resists climate action 

Polling results show a majority of Republican and Democrat voters support reducing fossil fuel use and increasing renewable energy. Threats to energy and mining interests and ideological opposition to government intervention mean much of the US Congress, members of fossil fuel industries and a number of coal-reliant states oppose climate action. Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council are working to unwind states’ renewable energy targets.

See PDF below for full brief with tables. 

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