Cheers to 2019 Energy Efficiency Progress
Reflecting on 2019, it is hard to grapple with the extent of this year's climate tragedies like massive wildfires and flooding. Yet even when things seem as dire as ever, there is continual news of progress, perseverance, and hope. And energy efficiency — the cheapest way to cut our energy waste and stave off climate change — is at the forefront of that progress and continues to be our planet's superhero, improving our health, creating high-quality jobs, and making our energy bills more affordable.
What's more, even as the U.S. builds more homes and commercial space, the amount of electricity needed to power those spaces (and the related pollution) is set to decline thanks to steady gains in efficiency.
States Led (And Continue to Lead) the Way
State Scorecard / ACEEE
With a Trump administration bent on stalling or dismantling efficiency efforts at every turn, states filled an important gap on setting efficiency standards (so our gadgets use less energy) and in delivering building upgrades (to cut energy waste and improve our comfort and health). The annual American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) scorecard shows where states are making progress and where more work is needed.
Here Are Just a Few State Examples:
- Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii adopted expanded energy and water efficiency standards, including for faucets, commercial kitchen equipment, computers, and more.
- Illinois is moving forward with the Clean Energy Jobs Act to require 100 percent clean energy by 2050, including a significant increase in gas efficiency, while ensuring that programs help the most vulnerable communities while creating good jobs.
- Missouri recently approved an improved set of efficiency programs that will help renters and owners of affordable multifamily housing cut costs and energy waste while protecting the health of residents.
- Michigan now has its first long-term outlook for how Consumers Energy will serve its customers with clean energy through its "clean and lean" plan, which includes an impressive increase of energy efficiency.
- New Jersey began implementing groundbreaking efficiency legislation to ensure its utilities invest in all cost-effective energy efficiency, positioning itself to become a national leader.
- New York adopted the nation-leading Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act setting a path to net-zero emissions (efficiency playing a major role) while helping to advance equity for disadvantaged communities.
- California adopted a new framework to launch innovative market transformation ideas to get even more efficient products onto store shelves, helping cut energy waste in the state and beyond as those improved technologies become the norm nationally.
Job and Emissions Benefits Were Made Crystal Clear
Denis Schroeder / NREL
There is no doubt that with strong policies to ensure high-quality jobs (e.g., those with family-sustaining wages, good benefits, a safe work environment, and a path for advancement), efficiency can help spur significant work for all Americans.
An analysis from the group E2 identified 2.3 million energy efficiency jobs based on 2019 U.S. Energy and Employment Report data. Energy efficiency accounted for half of the energy industry's overall net new jobs in 2018 and employs twice as many U.S. workers as the entire fossil fuel industry. The workers who make buildings and equipment more efficient are earning good salaries in jobs that can't be outsourced. Many are military veterans, just another reason why this summer's passage of the appalling HB 6 bill gutting Ohio energy efficiency programs was such a terrible move for the state and its workers.
National Standards Despite Trump
Several new efficiency standards approved by previous administrations took effect this year. And while the Trump administration's DOE missed more legal deadlines for review of product standards, NRDC and others are holding them to account. A federal appeals court recently ordered the agency to take the final step on four standards, ensuring upward of $8.4 billion in utility bill savings and substantial reductions in carbon pollution.
Even with this great progress, we're still fighting over the rules for setting standards. The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) proposed new process would make it far more difficult to advance products that give us the same (or even better) service but use far less energy, which would mean lower energy bills.
We are far from where we need to be in terms of cutting greenhouse gases and serving all communities. As we reflect on 2019, we can learn from our successes and build upon our challenges to make even more progress in 2020.
- Make sure everyone has access to clean energy. Getting sufficient funding to serve the most vulnerable communities has been difficult, but the opportunities are enormous, including cutting energy waste, improving health, and reducing the energy burden. Focusing efforts on these communities will not only help stave off climate change, it will improve their well-being, stimulate investment in their neighborhoods, and ensure that everyone is part of the clean energy transition.
- Fight for our lighting rights. The Trump administration continues its crusade to turn back time on light bulbs. In its latest proposal, DOE would illegally permit energy-wasting versions of the regular pear-shaped bulbs to remain on store shelves indefinitely. California, however, is again leading the way on efficiency by prohibiting the sale of inefficient light bulbs in the state as of January 1, but the federal attacks on energy efficiency must end.
- Keep up the state level work. Given the administration's denial of climate change and focus on advancing industry interests at the expense of everyday Americans, states MUST continue their leadership. Many states have great efficiency policies in place and are poised for exciting progress, such as Virginia's opportunity to adopt an ambitious energy efficiency resource standard, but other states require more work. Governors across the country have stepped up on climate action. It's time to do even more.
There is no doubt that the climate crisis is real. But as we come to the end of a harrowing year for the earth, we have much to look forward to in 2020. Working in collaboration with equity and workforce advocates, industry, and governments, we can create scalable, comprehensive, and effective energy efficiency actions to cut pollution, make energy more affordable for everyone, clean our air, and create high-quality jobs.
Lara Ettenson coordinates NRDC's energy efficiency policy and clean energy workforce activities.
This story is part of NRDC's year-end series reviewing 2019 climate & clean energy developments.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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