The National Climate Assessment and Opportunities to Cut U.S. Emissions

May 6, 2014
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Today the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the third National Climate Assessment. While the report serves as a sobering stock-taking of how climate change is already affecting our lives and raising future risks, it is also an opportunity to point out that we still have choices in how we respond. One of the most important choices we have is the amount of heat-trapping emissions we release into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Here’s a look at what those choices look like in the power sector.

U.S. carbon emissions are falling, but not as much or as fast as needed

The assessment points out that U.S. energy-related carbon emissions have been falling in the last few years, driven by a number of factors including lower energy demand, a switch to natural gas, and increased renewable energy and energy efficiency. These trends are happening because of economic factors like low natural gas prices and the falling cost of renewable energy, but they are also being driven by state and federal policies and incentives.

This post is part of a series on the National Climate Assessment. Learn more about climate change where you live by attending a UCS webinar.

This post is part of a series on the National Climate Assessment. Learn more about climate change where you live by attending a UCS webinar.

While it’s heartening to see this recent trend, we cannot be complacent about what it implies. The simple fact is we have to cut emissions much, much more if we are to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. As the NCA says, “early and large reductions in global emissions are necessary” to stay on a lower emissions pathway. And the electricity sector must play a lead role in that effort since it is the single biggest contributor to U.S. CO2 emissions currently.

What the NCA doesn’t point out is that relying on a switch to natural gas is very risky from a climate perspective. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel – albeit cleaner burning than coal – and its role also has to be contained if power sector emissions are to be significantly curtailed in the next few decades.

According to the NCA (see Chapter 27: Mitigation), to meet a lower emissions scenario, “global mitigation actions would need to limit CO2 emissions to a peak of around 44 billion tons per year within the next 25 years and decline thereafter.” Currently, the world is on a path to exceed this per year limit within a decade. Of course, it is the cumulative carbon emissions that matter for climate change: you can read more about that in my colleague Melanie Fitzpatrick’s blogpost on the global carbon budget.

Opportunities to accelerate the clean energy transition

Renewable energy costs are falling dramatically and that’s great news for cutting emissions affordably. For example, 2013 saw record amounts of solar energy deployment.

Strengthening existing state renewable energy and energy efficiency policies can play an important role in driving further emissions reductions. These policies – including renewable electricity standards now in effect in 29 states and the District of Columbia, state and regional cap-and-trade programs in California and the Northeast, and state and federal energy efficiency policies – are already providing important climate, energy, and economic benefits nationwide. Federal Clean Air and Clean Water standards can also help move us to cleaner electricity generation sources.

Power plant carbon standards for existing power plants, a draft of which are expected in early June, provide an important opportunity to get meaningful emissions reductions from the power sector – if the EPA sets strong standards that include a role for renewable energy and energy efficiency as compliance mechanisms.

Ultimately, Congress must do more: including putting a price on carbon and setting an ambitious national renewable energy target.

What about carbon capture and storage?

The NCA chapter on Mitigation makes passing reference to geoengineering as an option to address climate change, along with mitigation and adaptation. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) can play a role in reducing the emissions that enter the atmosphere. However, this role is limited in the near term because of the time and resources it would take to scale up such efforts. In addition, recent delays and cost-overruns in projects related to power plant CCS suggest that it may be more cost-effective and less risky to rely primarily on ‘here-and-now’ options like wind and solar energy and energy efficiency, at least in the near to medium term.

Improving climate resilience and cutting emissions

“Much of America’s energy infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather events,” notes the NCA (see Chapter 4: Energy Supply and Use). However, there are several opportunities to both build resilience to the impacts of climate change that are underway and cut power sector emissions.

A just-released UCS report, Power Failure: How Climate Change Puts our Electricity at Risk – and What We Can Do, also points out that our electricity system is already vulnerable to extreme weather events like extreme heat, droughts, coastal flooding, and wildfires and that these risks are likely to grow as climate change worsens. We’ve got to make investments in making our power infrastructure more resilient. Ramping up renewable energy is an important solution that can both improve resilience and cut the emissions that are fueling climate change. Hardening measures are also important.

Additional research from UCS and others shows the need to make water-smart power choices in a warming world. Power plants, particularly coal-fired and nuclear power plants, use a tremendous amount of water for cooling purposes as they generate electricity. With a warming climate increasing stress on water resources in many regions of the country, it’s going to be critical to find ways to cut this water use by investing in no or low-water technologies like energy efficiency, wind energy, and air cooling.

Our energy choices will determine our climate future

It’s no exaggeration that the choices we make about where we get our power from in the next few decades will play a significant role in deciding our climate future. Ensuring that we rapidly scale up renewable energy and energy efficiency, while continuing to retire coal-fired power plants and containing the role of natural gas, is critical to building a reliable, affordable, and low-carbon power system. It’s also critical to helping ensure that we limit the costly impacts of climate change.

Fossil fuel interests that seek to undermine clean energy progress are standing in the way of our choice to leave our children a cleaner, safer world. It’s time to hold them accountable. And, if we are to take the conclusions of the National Climate Assessment seriously – as we must – it is way past time for Congress to enact serious climate and energy policies, including a price on carbon.