Accidental Success? Even Without National Climate Policy, US Emissions May Fall Enough To Avoid Failure

In 2009, at the international climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, President Obama pledged that the US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Since then, national efforts toward comprehensive climate legislation, or even making concrete strides to intentionally reduce emissions on a national scale have been, let’s say… lackluster. But even so, a recent report by Resources for the Future predicts that the US will hit 16.3% reductions over a 2005 baseline by 2020.  Moreover, because the report is intentionally conservative, and downplays the future impacts of investments in efficiency and other reductions in demand, the 17% goal may in fact be in sight.

Remarkably, the report concludes that the patchwork, regulatory approach that governed between 2009 and 2012 actually created better opportunities for reductions than would have occurred if the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill (H.R. 2454) had become law. Although that legislation called for a roughly 30% reduction in emissions by 2020, as much as two-thirds of those reductions would have come from international and domestic offsets, not real reductions. Additionally, since the legislation would have preempted many of the activities that are responsible for key reductions, namely EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, but also regional initiatives like RGGI, the 2020 goal may in fact be closer than had we passed national cap and trade, but not taken other actions.

Instead, under the patchwork, regulatory approach, the report finds that the largest portion of projected emissions reductions come through EPA regulations of mobile sources like cars and light trucks, as well as the new regulations on stationary sources and industrial facilities. Together, the EPA initiatives are expected to reduce emissions by 10.5% by 2020, compared to a 2005 baseline. State and regional efforts will contribute an additional 2.5% reduction by 2020, according to the report, with California’s 2013 cap and trade program accounting for half of the impact of all states’ efforts.  Another 3.3.% reduction in emissions comes about through the low price of natural gas and improvements in energy efficiency. However, the model used in the report does not take into account additional state efforts that might be passed in the future, or new energy efficiency investments that may reduce demand even further by 2020.

Efficiency and demand reduction can have a significant impact, on both emissions and consumers’ pocketbooks. Close to home, the Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Advisory Council recently released a report on the impacts of state energy efficiency programs and investments in the Commonwealth in 2011. Among the high points: in October 2011, Massachusetts was ranked first in energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy’s State Energy Efficiency Scorecard; and the council found that on average, every dollar invested in energy efficiency returned $4.17 in benefits to the consumer. The results were even higher for business customers, who enjoyed an average return of $5.10 for every dollar invested in energy efficiency in 2011.

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