Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”

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