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President Obama’s Climate Action Plan

Climate

World Resources Institute

By Jennifer Morgan and Kevin Kennedy

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

With today’s announcement of a national climate action plan, President Obama is pushing forward to tackle the urgent challenge of climate change. This is the most comprehensive climate plan by a U.S. president to date. If fully and swiftly implemented, the Obama Administration can truly reset the climate agenda for this country.

The plan looks to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions in a comprehensive way and takes on the question of how to protect the country from the devastating climate-related impacts we are already seeing today. With a clear, national strategy in place—and concrete steps to implement it—the administration can protect people at home and encourage greater ambition internationally.

Importantly, the president is recommitting the U.S. to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. World Resources Institute’s (WRI) recent analysis demonstrates that meeting this target is achievable, but requires ambitious action across many sectors of the economy. WRI identifies four areas with the greatest opportunity for emissions reductions—power plants, energy efficiency, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane—which are all specifically included in the plan.

The plan is also notable for addressing climate impacts and encouraging increased international engagement. Together, these steps can help the U.S. reclaim lost ground on climate change. While there are many details to be worked out, this plan is a welcome step to putting the U.S. on a pathway to a safer future.

Reducing Carbon Pollution from Power Plants

First off, the president’s plan commits the U.S. to address carbon pollution in existing power plants. Power plants currently represent one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution in the U.S. The president also directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move quickly to finalize the proposed CO2 pollution standards for new power plants.

These actions will be important for protecting people’s health and the planet—and WRI analysis finds that they can be implemented in a way that is flexible and cost effective. It will be important for the EPA to act with a sense of urgency in order to meet the U.S. emissions target. Just as important as the time frame for finalizing these standards is their stringency. Without sufficient ambition, the U.S. will not be able to achieve the reductions it needs by 2020 and in the years beyond.

Increasing Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

The additional actions and goals that the President has laid out in the plan for renewable energy and efficiency will be important in allowing stringent power plant standards to be achieved in a cost-effective manner.

On energy efficiency, the president announced a new goal to reduce CO2 pollution by a total of 3 billion metric tons through 2030 through new and existing efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. This would be a significant reduction, the equivalent of eliminating nearly two years’ worth of emissions from coal power plants.

Energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions, as more efficient equipment uses less energy and therefore saves consumers money. There are dozens of products that are excellent candidates for new and updated efficiency standards—some of which are awaiting approval—and many more ways to capture this low-hanging fruit in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. A recent analysis finds that there are a total of six standards that are waiting for approval. Each additional month of delay on these costs consumers $200 million in lost savings and pumps an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The plan also calls for doubling renewable energy in the U.S. by 2020 and opening public lands for renewable energy development, to the tune of an additional 10 gigawatts of installed renewable capacity on those lands by 2020. This would be enough energy to power 2.6 million American homes.

This policy is a strong complement to the forthcoming emissions standards, as it could make compliance easier for utilities. The federal government owns roughly 28 percent of land in the U.S.; selectively opening up some public lands for clean energy projects should help ease siting concerns for utilities and project developers.

Reducing HFCs and Methane

The U.S. has been working for years to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs under the auspices of the Montreal Protocol. The recent agreement between the U.S. and China to work together toward this end is an important development in reducing emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. Both chemical and consumer product manufacturers support a planned global phasedown of HFC production and consumption. The plan also acknowledges that there is more the U.S. can and should be doing to eliminate its domestic emissions of HFCs under the Significant New Alternatives Policy Program. The plan also recognizes the importance of curbing emission of methane, another potent greenhouse gas. The President calls for development of an interagency methane strategy that improves data on methane emissions and identifies opportunities to reduce those emissions.

Preparing for Climate Impacts

Climate impacts are already happening globally. The U.S. is experiencing rising sea levels along our coasts, droughts in the Midwest, wildfires in Colorado and torrential rains in the Northeast. These impacts are taking a toll on our homes and our businesses. Drought impacts energy production and agriculture. Sea level rise threatens critical infrastructure and clean water supply. These risks are becoming a reality for people across the country.

In response, the plan aims to help Americans prepare for climate change impacts. Adapting to climate change will require striking the right balance between support and direction from the federal government and locally appropriate solutions. The plan focuses on reducing people’s vulnerability by identifying barriers and reforming policies. These actions can empower states and localities to tailor their adaptation actions to their location-specific climate challenges. It should also help create incentives for businesses to contribute to solutions. As the country rebuilds from Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events of recent years, it will be important to systematically learn what is working and what needs improvement.

International Climate Action

The president calls for greater engagement internationally—and this, too, is critically important. The U.S. can—and should—be a leader on this global challenge. Climate change will bring significant impacts that will affect our economy and our security.

The U.S. should re-engage in a purposeful and constructive way, working with the international community to rally toward an effective and ambitious international climate agreement by 2015. Cooperation on climate change—as signified by the recent announcement between the U.S. and China on HFCs—shows this is an area where collaboration is both necessary and possible. Enhanced U.S. action will catalyze other countries to come forward with a greater sense of ambition and urgency.

Moving Forward with Ambitious Climate Action

Today’s announcement marks a major milestone in the creation of a durable and far-ranging climate plan for the U.S. The details matter, of course, so we’ll be watching for more specific information about what the various agencies will do—and how quickly and strongly they take up this challenge.

This plan puts a marker in the ground that the Obama Administration is ready to take climate change seriously. It is a strong and broad approach—one that stakes new ground, but also builds on existing common-sense actions.

The plan makes clear the responsibility that we all have to take action for today’s communities and for future generations.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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