Climate Compass Blog

States can learn from each other on carbon pricing

As discussed at our C2ES Solutions Forum on Carbon Pricing & Clean Power, both power companies and states see advantages to using carbon pricing, such as a cap-and-trade program, to reduce carbon emissions under the Clean Power Plan.

For companies, rather than being forced into specific measures to cut emissions, a carbon price harnesses market innovation to find the most cost-effective solutions. Meanwhile, states can draw on the experiences of existing cap-and-trade programs in California and the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

While the advantages of market-based approaches are widely acknowledged, some stakeholders are concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) timeline would make it challenging to develop a cap-and-trade program. EPA proposes giving states until summer 2016 to submit a plan. States could apply for a one-year extension or, if submitting a plan as part of a multistate collaboration, a two-year extension.

How culture shapes the climate change debate

I have an in-law who is, shall we say, rather skeptical about climate change. Any discussion on the topic usually begins with some contrarian science theory that he heard on one of his favorite talk shows (e.g. sun spots, deep ocean magma, urban heat islands), and then devolves from there.

Why do some Americans believe the antithesis of the scientific consensus on issues like climate change?

This topic is explored by Professor Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan in his new book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. As suggested by the title, Hoffman’s thesis – a distillation of considerable research from social scientists over the past several years – is that the public’s understanding of climate change, like other historically contentious issues such as evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, and genetically modified food – is as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.

One of the key arguments is that a scientific consensus does not necessarily reflect a “social consensus,” the latter being something that the majority of society would consider to be true.  For instance, the scientific consensus that cigarettes harm human health emerged decades before the social consensus emerged.

World economy grew, but carbon emissions didn't

In a sign that low-carbon policies may finally be gaining traction, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions leveled off last year even while the world economy grew.

Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that energy-related CO2 emissions (from burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, industry, space heating and so on) remained unchanged from the previous year at 32.3 billion metric tons. Meanwhile, economic growth increased 3.3 percent.

One year’s data doesn’t necessarily translate into a trend. Even with much stronger efforts, it will be some time before we can truly announce that we have turned the corner on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But 2014 is notable in that it’s the first time since the IEA was established in the early 1970s that a levelling off or a drop in global carbon emissions didn’t accompany an economic downtown.

Historically, energy-related CO2 emissions have moved in lockstep with economic growth. They’re being decoupled due to policy changes and market forces affecting two factors – energy intensity and fuel mix – both in China and in the developed economies.

US climate target encourages others to put best foot forward

I recently wrote a piece for China Dialogue about the US announcement of its intended contribution to a new international climate agreement due this December in Paris. Here is that article:


The US pushed strongly for getting climate targets on the table well ahead of this year’s Paris negotiation, arguing that exposing countries’ offerings to a bit of scrutiny would encourage them to “put their best foot forward.”  With the formal submission of its intended target, the Obama administration arguably has done just that.

The US contribution is, for the moment, only a declaration of intent. But by coming out early with the strongest target it believes it can muster, the White House has charted an ambitious course at home. And it is upping the pressure on China and other major economies to do the most that they can too.

The end result, hopefully, is a new agreement in Paris that not only pulls all these numbers together, but also holds countries accountable for their promises, and commits them to keep returning to the table in the years ahead to assess and strengthen their efforts.

Continuing to lead by example on federal sustainability

As the country’s largest landlord, fleet operator, and purchaser of goods and services, the federal government can lead by example in moving the country toward a more sustainable future.

Taking that opportunity, the Obama Administration recently issued a new executive order, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, that builds on energy-saving advances and ups the targets for federal agencies to do even more. Joining in the commitment to cleaner energy and energy efficiency were 14 companies that are major federal suppliers.

A 2009 executive order set a target of reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The March 2015 executive order raises the bar – to 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025. The goal is expected to save taxpayers up to $18 billion in avoided energy costs.

The order also directs federal agencies to:

  • Increase the use of renewable energy sources to 30 percent of total consumption by 2025,
  • Reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions from federal fleets 30 percent by 2025 and ensure a fifth of the fleet is made up of zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025, and
  • Reduce the amount of water used in federal buildings 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2025.

Complementing the new executive order, 14 large federal suppliers committed to new or expanded emission pledges that would cumulatively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by 2020. Several members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council made commitments:

  • IBM will reduce its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and buy 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by that year.
  • GE will invest $25 billion in research and development in energy efficiency and clean energy and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below a 2011 baseline by 2020.
  • HP will reduce the emissions intensity of its product portfolio 40 percent by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

Taken together, the new executive order and the voluntary commitments from federal suppliers will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million metric tons below 2008 levels by 2025, according to White House estimates.

Figure: Fiscal Year 2013 Federal Government Direct Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Category

Federal direct greenhouse gas emissions totaled nearly 45 million metric tons of CO2e in Fiscal Year 2013. Over 60 percent of emissions are from purchased electricity. Transportation emissions include those from passenger fleet vehicle, vehicles, aircraft, ships, and related equipment.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy (2014), "Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance"