Finalized Policies Get U.S. Halfway to Meeting Climate Goal

By Climate Advisers
US Policy & Politics

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union of his presidency. Climate change, one of the President’s signature issues, will undoubtedly get significant airtime and Obama can certainly be expected to tout considerable progress on both the international and domestic fronts.

And with good reason. The speech comes just a month after nearly 200 countries concluded a historic climate agreement in Paris and rounds out the busiest year in climate rule-making in U.S. history. Just over the last year, this administration has finalized the first-ever carbon dioxide emissions limits for existing power plants, proposed stronger fuel economy standards for trucks, issued draft regulations to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, and pushed forward alternatives to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the highly potent greenhouse gases used primarily in refrigeration and air conditioning. These and other initiatives build on the President’s 2013 Climate Action Plan and, if successfully implemented, are expected to help the U.S. meet its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Inevitably, however, the question comes back to this: Will they be enough?

Last spring, we released an initial assessment of the suite of recently finalized, proposed and planned regulations pushed forward by the Obama administration. And we looked at the extent to which they bent the domestic emissions trajectory down toward the U.S. climate goal. A lot has happened since then and, with Paris now concluded and President Obama beginning his last year in office, we decided to once again take stock of the country’s current emissions trajectory.

Using estimates of emissions reductions from new and updated policy proposals and final rules*, as well as revised projections of U.S. baseline emissions from the Energy Information Administration’s 2015 Annual Energy Outlook and the just-submitted Second U.S. Biennial Report to the UNFCCC, we find that the country is on track to reduce emissions by up to 23% below 2005 levels—below the target range but well within the realm of possibility for success. The chart below breaks down the expected emissions reductions in 2025 by the stage of the regulation expected to achieve them.

Expected emissions reductions by policy stage in 2025

2025 chart

Note: 100% represents the lower end of the 2025 target, 26%.

More on each segment:

  • Finalized: On-the-books policies represent 53% of needed action. These include the Clean Power Plan, a suite of new energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, and the phasedown of HFCs through the SNAP program, among others.
  • Proposed: Regulations that are not yet final, but with drafts already available for comment, account for 7% of needed action. These are rules to lower methane emissions from new oil and gas facilities, updated CAFE standards for trucks, and another half-dozen energy efficiency standards. Proposed policies may eventually be adopted in a different form, impacting the expected emissions reductions potential.
  • Planned: Policies that we know are coming, but whose drafts have not yet been made public, cover another 8% of all needed reductions. The most significant of these are additional regulation to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
  • Discussed: Discussed policies cover those that are considered necessary, but that are not yet close to becoming law. This category, representing about 21% of all needed reductions, by and large includes the phase-down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol as well as expectations that states may overachieve their CPP targets.

So, what’s the verdict? Announced measures can certainly get us reasonably close to meeting the U.S. 2025 target. However, the next administration will have the tough task of vigorously implementing existing and upcoming Obama administration policies and proposing new emissions reductions measures. While enthusiasm for such work will depend on the outcome of this year’s national elections, the climate momentum gathered over the past year will make it undeniably difficult to take two steps back. And if we’re wrong, well, there are always super-powerful artificial trees.

The white paper containing the full analysis is available online here.

* This analysis is limited only to actions that the Administration has publicly announced. It does not represent the suite of what is possible—but not yet proposed—under existing authority. Moreover, the calculations are simplified and do not take into account interdependencies and feedback loops between different sectors and set of policies.

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On January 12, 2016

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