President Barack Obama told the nation that he’s prepared to “act before it’s too late” and combat climate change through the White House if Congress is unwilling to lead.
Given that lawmakers couldn’t agree on a landmark cap-and-trade agreement even when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, congressional action this year is unlikely. The administration should move forward on its own.
Fortunately, there are many ways to fight climate change without legislation, chiefly by enacting carbon-pollution limits for new and, more importantly, existing power plants. Stricter energy-efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and other equipment can also make a meaningful dent in carbon output, along with continuing the U.S. government’s own effort to shrink its carbon footprint.
Over the past two decades, the United States has made significant progress in cutting carbon emissions. And last year, pollution from energy use fell to its lowest level since 1992, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Still, the U.S. accounts for about 19 percent of global emissions — emissions that are causing global temperature increases, rising seas, destructive droughts, floods and hurricanes, according to a government advisory panel report released last month.
The Environmental Protection Agency has already taken a critical first step in restricting power-plant emissions, proposing to limit new generators to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour. Efficient natural-gas plants would be able to meet the standard, but coal-fired plants would have to install expensive carbon-capture systems to comply.
While the rule will effectively ban new proposals for coal plants, it is expected to do little to reduce emissions. Utilities are already shifting from coal to cheaper natural gas.
The only way to get significant reductions is to limit emissions from the more than 500 existing coal-fired power plants, which spew some 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than from any other U.S. source. Such a move would not be easy, given steep resistance from the coal industry and its many congressional protectors, who say carbon limits would drive up electricity prices, hinder the U.S. economy and make the electric grid less reliable.
It is possible, however, to take industry’s concerns into account. The Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed setting individual state budgets for carbon emissions, with coal plants getting a higher allotment — 1,500 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour — than natural gas. The EPA could work with states to set limits on total carbon emissions and then let local governments figure out how to get there — a model that’s already in place for ozone and other pollutants. And in crafting the rules, the agency could give the power industry a seat at the table, as it did when it worked with carmakers to draft fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.
The administration should also push forward with efforts to encourage energy efficiency, which can drastically reduce emissions as well as consumers’ electric bills, by making energy sources cleaner and more productive. The plan Obama unveiled in his national address, to create an energy-efficiency “Race to the Top,” would provide financial support to states that implement the most effective energy-efficiency policies — with the goal of cutting in half the energy wasted by homes and businesses over the next 20 years.
The White House needs to go further, however, and speed its own efforts to make appliances such as microwave ovens and equipment such as walk-in freezers more efficient. Eight standards that the administration has already proposed have been delayed for months. And each month’s delay costs consumers and businesses $300 million in savings and adds 4.4 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
In his speech, the president brought up a couple of other ideas — to divert some oil- and gas-drilling revenue to research alternative-fuel technologies and make permanent the tax subsidies for wind and solar power. While finding a way to help renewables like solar and wind compete with entrenched fossil fuels is critical, Obama’s admirable ideas would require congressional action. The White House should look for other ways to bolster clean energy — including by continuing its effort to shift the Department of Defense, the nation’s largest energy user, toward using cleaner energy sources.
In Obama’s first term, the EPA issued rules curbing mercury emissions, updating boilers and making power plants cleaner. As the age of congressional sclerosis continues, rule-making remains Obama’s most powerful tool for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.