When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, there was a long list of incomplete or ignored clean energy and public health measures from the George W. Bush administration. A month earlier, during President-elect Obama’s transition, the Center for American Progress identified the “Top 10 Energy and Environment Priorities for the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress.” Earlier this year, we determined that the administration had accomplished nearly all of these goals despite facing the worst economy in nearly 80 years and strong opposition from Big Oil, coal, and other energy interests.
The reduction of industrial carbon pollution responsible for climate change, however, is the biggest unfinished item from the president’s first term. In December 2012 President Obama acknowledged this, telling Time magazine that his “primary focus is going to continue to be on the economy, on immigration, on climate change and energy.” The urgency to address climate change was reinforced with the release on January 11, 2013, of the draft National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive analysis of the effects of climate change in the United States. This work, which includes the findings of hundreds of scientists, concluded that:
Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. … these changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.
Many of the top energy and environmental priorities for President Obama’s second term, therefore, should reduce industrial carbon pollution by boosting investments in clean energy technologies, protect public health by reducing pollution from the largest emitters, and help communities cope with the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Here are the top 10 energy and environmental priorities for President Obama’s second term.
Let’s look at each of the above priorities in greater detail.
Reduce carbon pollution by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020
In 2009 President Obama committed the United States to 2020 carbon-pollution levels “in the range of” a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels. The Energy Information Administration recently determined that the United States is halfway to this goal because carbon pollution has already been reduced by 9 percent below 2005 levels. This is due to reductions of carbon pollution from motor vehicle emissions, lower demand for electricity, and a shift from coal to natural gas and renewable electricity generation. The Energy Information Administration, however, projects that carbon pollution from the energy sector will rise again beginning in 2017 without additional action because fossil-fuel-generated electricity will grow.
The United States should continue to reduce its pollution by setting carbon-pollution standards for existing power plants, oil refineries, and other major industrial sources under the federal Clean Air Act. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, proposed a carbon-pollution-reduction program for power plants that would cut their pollution by one-quarter. To accomplish this goal, the Environmental Protection Agency would do the following:
Set state-specific limits on carbon pollution that reflect the fact that some states depend heavily on high-carbon energy sources like coal-fired power plants, while others rely more on cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources like wind and solar. It would then give states a wide range of affordable ways to meet their goal. Our analysis shows that the most cost-effective way would be through energy efficiency.
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s proposal would reduce total carbon pollution by an additional 5 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, which would get the United States four-fifths of the way to the 17 percent reduction goal by 2020.
A price on carbon pollution from major sources could complement such a pollution-reduction standard. A progressive carbon tax would put a price on carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases, creating an economic incentive to emit less. The billions of dollars in revenue that is projected to be generated from the tax could be rebated to middle- and lower-income households to offset higher energy prices. The remaining funds could boost investments in emerging clean energy technologies and/or reduce the federal deficit.
Reduce ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ by including a phase out of hydrofluorocarbons in the Montreal Protocol
There are other more potent greenhouse gases that produce a greater increase in temperature even though they decompose much faster than carbon dioxide. These greenhouse gases are called “short-lived climate forcers.” They include pollutants such as black carbon or soot, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons.
In February 2012 the State Department created the international Climate and Clean Air Coalition, an alliance of 25 nations committed to the worldwide phase-out of these potent greenhouse gases. Efforts are now underway to curtail black carbon and methane.
It is essential that we also phase out hydrofluorocarbons. They are a radically more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and their emissions levels are projected to double by 2020. Eliminating hydrofluorocarbons would cut in half the gap between current global pledges to reduce climate pollutants by 2020, which is necessary if we hope to limit the increase in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.
The most effective way to eradicate hydrofluorocarbons would be to include them in the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol is a 25-year-old international agreement negotiated in the 1980s under then-President Ronald Reagan that has cost-effectively phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and other ozone-layer-depleting substances. President Obama must promptly open negotiations to add hydrofluorocarbons to the protocol.
Finalize an international climate protection treaty
Many opponents of U.S. carbon-pollution reductions argue that other nations must also cut their pollution to stave off the worst damages from climate change. They have a point: Even if the United States dramatically stems its own pollution, gains could be offset by increased carbon pollution from China, India, and other rapidly developing countries.
Fortunately, the 2011 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, agreed to begin the process of negotiating a new international climate treaty that must be completed by 2015. Significantly, it is “applicable to all parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, allowing for the first time that a global agreement must require pollution reductions from every nation, not just the developed ones. The Obama administration should actively negotiate this agreement and persuade the public and Congress of the treaty’s importance well before it is finalized.
Raise dedicated revenue to help communities become more resilient to the impacts of global warming
The deadly superstorm Sandy was just one of 25 climate-related extreme weather events that caused at least $1 billion in damages in the United States from 2011 to 2012. The National Climate Assessment draft confirmed that such devastating storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires will only worsen if no action to curb global warming is taken. The National Climate Assessment concluded that:
Climate change and its impacts threaten the well-being of urban residents in all regions of the U.S. Essential local and regional infrastructure systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts.
The federal government must help communities protect themselves from the future surge of extreme weather events by employing both manmade defenses and natural systems. Infrastructure improvements must include “hardening” community shelters, water-treatment facilities, electricity transmission, roads, and other vital infrastructure. We must also move to protect wetlands that can buffer storm surges and sea-level rise and significantly reduce flooding.
Clearly, cities will need assistance with these resilience efforts. The federal government should create a dedicated revenue stream for this essential purpose, which will save $4 in damages for every $1 spent on resilience. CAP proposes that President Obama designate a blue-ribbon bipartisan panel to identify and recommend a reliable revenue stream for community resilience. Panel members should include elected officials, business people, first responders, and civic leaders from states that recently suffered from severe extreme weather events. After an opportunity for public comment on the panel’s recommendations, President Obama and Congress should adopt them.