Stronger action needed to meet U.S. climate pledge

In a recent report to the United Nations, the State Department lays out the United States’ strategy for achieving its goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The strategy is “ambitious,” as the State Department says. But a close read reveals that, in some key respects, it is more a menu of options than a clear blueprint.

The Biennial Report is the first required of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as part of a series of measures aimed at ensuring greater transparency about steps countries are taking to meet their international climate pledges.

The figure below helps visualize the challenge facing the United States. The blue bar on the left represents 100 percent of U.S. emissions in 2005, or 7,195 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. On the right side is the 2020 goal to reduce emissions by 1,223 million metric tons, or 17 percent.

'60 Minutes' story on clean tech omits climate change

A recent "60 Minutes" story highlighted the demise of a few high-profile clean-tech companies that received federal funding. The story neglected to report why clean technology is vital to the future of our economy and environment in the first place, and therefore why it makes sense for the government to promote the development of wind and solar energy, electric vehicles, and other clean tech. Simply put, the goal is to transform our economy from one based on fossil fuels that emit heat-trapping gases to one based on clean energy that won't contribute to global climate change.

Meeting our energy needs

The United States is moving toward meeting all of its energy needs from domestic resources even faster than was predicted just a year ago.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said last year that the U.S. would become the world’s largest oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, by 2017. Its new World Energy Outlook moves that up to 2015. The U.S. is already the world’s top producer of natural gas, a position it reached in 2012 thanks to an expanding supply of shale gas. The IEA sees the United States holding both top spots at least until the early 2030s and being energy self-sufficient by 2035.

This huge shift didn’t happen by accident, and it will have implications for both the economy and the environment.

Headwinds for coal

In a significant shift, government-run institutions financing overseas development have taken a series of steps this summer to sharply curtail their investments in coal-fired power plants.

In June, President Obama said that the United States would no longer finance coal plants through the US Export-Import Bank unless they used carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology or there was no other option for the poorest countries to generate electricity. In July, the World Bank announced it would provide financial assistance to new coal projects “only in rare circumstances.” And later last month, the European Investment Bank (EIB) said it would stop funding new and refurbished coal plants unless they emit less than 550g carbon dioxide/kWh (~1,200 lb carbon dioxide/MWh), about half of what the average U.S. coal plant emits.

It makes sense that financial decisions should factor in environmental impacts: Continued investment in an energy source that is only going to lead to increased costs from extreme weather and other climate change impacts makes no sense. As a practical matter, however, these steps by themselves are unlikely to slow the coal plant-building binge in China and India, or make significant reductions in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Leveraging the natural gas boom to cut carbon

While global greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, U.S. emissions are back down to where they were in the mid-1990s. This decline is partly due to the economic downturn, but a key contributor has been electricity generators’ shift from coal to natural gas.