U.S. Can Lead on Global Climate Action: Clean Power Plan Is a Linchpin

March 31, 2015 | 11:16 am
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Today we are expecting the U.S. to make public its proposed contribution to the global effort to tackle climate change as part of the UNFCCC process. This announcement will come in the form of the so-called U.S. ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ or INDC. The Clean Power Plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants is a critical element of the emissions reductions that the U.S. can make by 2025.

Emission reduction targets in the U.S. INDC

As part of the global climate negotiations, countries had previously committed to making their INDCs public well before the Paris meeting when, it is hoped, a new climate agreement will be reached. Just last week Mexico became the first developing country to announce its INDC. The timing of the U.S. INDC, coming this early in the year, will encourage transparency and cooperation in this process.

The U.S. has already given strong indication that its emissions reduction target is likely to be in the range of a 26-28 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025. Although deeper emission reductions are certainly possible, it will be important for the U.S. to signal it will at least deliver the upper end of that range. Reductions of that magnitude are economically and technically feasible, and the U.S. is already making significant progress in that direction.

In November 2014, the U.S. and China made an historic joint announcement on climate change and clean energy cooperation, wherein the U.S. set a target for reducing its carbon emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Subsequently, at the UNFCCC meeting in Lima in December 2014, Rick Duke, the Deputy Director for Climate Policy at White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, provided information on U.S. actions related to the multilateral assessment process. Although the focus of his presentation was actions that would help deliver on the U.S. Copenhagen pledge of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, it also outlined a number of steps in the President’s Climate Action Plan that would help drive down emissions through 2025 and beyond, in keeping with the U.S.-China announcement.

The Clean Power Plan is central to driving down U.S. emissions

The draft Clean Power Plan was issued last June, and it proposes to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Power plant carbon emissions are nearly 40 percent of U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions, so cutting these emissions is critical to the overall effort to limit U.S. emissions.

There are a number of ways the Clean Power Plan could be strengthened to drive down emissions even further. UCS analysis shows that strengthening the contribution from renewable energy would alone increase the emission reductions from the Clean Power Plan to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The EPA is expected to finalize the Clean Power Plan this summer. A strengthened final rule that retains the flexibility of the draft – providing states with many cost-effective options to cut their emissions – and ensures that states are well on track to meet their goals by 2025 will help drive a transition to a low-carbon economy and all the economic and health benefits that brings. It will also give the global community confidence in our commitment to a collaborative effort to drive down emissions.

Additional actions to cut emissions will also be necessary

While the power sector is an important source of emissions, and cost-effective emission reductions, actions to cut emissions in other sectors will also be necessary to meet the U.S. target and help limit costly climate impacts. These include vehicle efficiency standards, appliance and equipment efficiency standards, efforts to cut methane emissions, and initiatives to ensure greater land sequestration of carbon emissions through reforestation and other means.

The administration clearly recognizes this, as evidenced by other actions it is taking. Ultimately, Congress must step up to set national limits on emissions and put a price on carbon.

Other nations are also stepping up

Several other countries have already announced their INDCs, including Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, and the European Union. Many more are expected in the coming months, including from major developing countries. This shows very positive momentum in the lead-up to the UNFCCC meeting (COP-21) in Paris this December, where countries will try to reach a global agreement on climate change for the post-2020 period.

U.S. leadership can be a strong catalyst for a successful outcome in Paris. Cutting carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency is also smart policy for us at home. Clean energy can be a big driver for domestic economic opportunities (as detailed in this letter to the EPA from 14 leading states), while also delivering large public health benefits from the switch away from fossil fuels.