Policy FAQs

Back to Main FAQs

Why should the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions?

  • The United States is responsible for approximately 25 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to date, and its emissions continue to increase.  As the world's largest economy, and the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States is central to any long-term strategy to address global climate change. Top

When should the United States take action to address climate change?

  • In October 2001, we held a workshop inviting leading scientists, economists, and other analysts to address this question.  The workshop revealed a consensus that action to address global climate change must begin now if it is to be effective.  An immediate signal that initiates action is required in order to provide a smooth and cost-effective transition to a stable concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere-a challenge that will take decades, if not generations, to meet.  

    As the scientific literature makes clear, we do not need to know more in order to conclude with confidence that the trend towards a warmer global climate is real, and that action should begin now.  Waiting to take action ignores the strong evidence that GHG concentrations in the atmosphere are building and if left unchecked will exceed a doubling of their pre-industrial levels. Other compelling reasons to begin taking action include the potential for catastrophes that defy the assumption that climate change damages will be incremental and linear; the risk of irreversible environmental impacts; the need to learn about the pace at which society can begin a transition to a climate-stable economy; the likelihood of imposing unconscionable burdens and impossible tasks on future generations; the need to create incentives to accelerate technological development the address climate change; and the ready availability of "no regrets" policies that have very low or even no costs to the economy.  Moving forward with a real and rational program to reduce GHGs allows us to address this challenge in a way that is timely, consistent, meaningful, and cost-effective. Top

Are voluntary GHG reduction programs sufficient to control U.S. GHG emissions, or is a mandatory program necessary?

  • In response to the goal of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to stabilize GHG concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, the United States has instituted a number of programs since 1992.  These include voluntary GHG mitigation programs, research and development, and a subset of energy policies that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy.  More than a decade of experience with these programs shows that while they have at times inspired significant action on the part of individual companies, these measures have not succeeded in reducing, or even stabilizing, total U.S. emissions.  U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased roughly 12 percent between 1990 and 2001, and are projected to increase another 12 percent by 2012.  Voluntary programs can provide important experience for designing future efforts, but they cannot stimulate the broad engagement that will be necessary to achieve the level of emissions reductions that ultimately will be required.  In order for the United States to achieve the significant GHG reductions necessary to address climate change, it must implement a mandatory GHG reduction program. Top

What are the key elements of a prospective U.S. climate change program?

  • A number of policy options are available to secure emissions reductions, but to be effective and affordable, a long-term emissions reduction program must couple mandatory GHG reductions with technology development and market mechanisms.  A comprehensive domestic strategy would couple short- and long-term measures that aim to (1) improve the tracking and reporting of GHG emissions; (2) promote new technologies and practices; and (3) provide a foundation upon which to secure long-term emissions reductions.  While each of these objectives can be pursued in a number of different ways, an effective strategy must address all three. Top

Which greenhouse gases should be controlled in a domestic climate change program?

  • In the effort to understand and address global climate change, most analysis has focused on rapidly rising emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and options for reducing them.  Indeed, CO2, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion, is the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.  However, other greenhouse gases including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and what have been called the "synthetic gases," hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), also are important contributors to climate change.  From both an environmental and an economic standpoint, effective climate change strategies should address both CO2 and these other greenhouse gases. Top

Should a domestic (U.S.) climate change program be compatible with international efforts to address climate change?

  • A domestic (U.S.) strategy ultimately must reflect any international commitments by the United States.  As domestic and international programs evolve, close coordination between them is critical.  This is especially important for companies that operate and compete both domestically and abroad, and for U.S.-based companies that sell products abroad, as they will be subject to rules dealing with climate change in other countries.  In addition, coordination is necessary to maximize effectiveness of emissions trading and other flexibility mechanisms now being developed at the international level. Top

What is the current Administration's climate change strategy and will it reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions?

  • On February 14, 2002, President Bush announced a new climate change strategy for the United States that sets a voluntary "greenhouse gas intensity" target for the nation, expands existing programs encouraging companies to voluntarily report and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and proposes increased federal funding for climate change science and technology development.  Some elements of the Administration's strategy may provide additional incentive to companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the Administration's target - an 18 percent reduction in emissions intensity between now and 2012 - will allow actual emissions to increase 12 percent over the same period.  Emissions will continue to grow at nearly the same rate as at present. Top

What actions has Congress taken to address climate change in the United States?

  • As the scientific evidence of climate change has mounted, so has Congressional activity.  The number of introduced climate change-related bills increased from seven in the 105th Congress (1997 - 1998) to 25 in the 106th Congress (1999 - 2000), and to more than 50 in the 107th Congress (2001 - 2002).  In addition, the climate change issue was raised dozens of times during debate in the 107th Congress and was discussed in over 30 congressional hearings.  Climate change measures are increasingly being offered by members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties.  In January 2003 the bipartisan team of Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced legislation that would establish an economy-wide GHG cap-and-trade program (Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, S. 139, 108th Cong.). 

    The growing interest suggests that a bipartisan consensus could develop in the near term around certain legislative proposals, including measures to require the reporting and disclosure of GHG emissions, protect companies reducing GHG emissions from being penalized under a future GHG reduction program, and promote carbon sequestration.  Addressing the challenge of climate change will, however, ultimately require a more comprehensive set of approaches possibly including mechanisms to limit GHG emissions and allow the trading of GHG emissions credits, and efficiency standards to promote the use of efficient products and technologies. Top

Are individual states adopting policies to address climate change?

  • Some U.S. states have been formulating climate change policy for more than a decade, although their efforts have expanded and intensified in the past few years.  In some cases, states have attempted to address climate change explicitly while in others it has been an incidental benefit of other policies (e.g., energy policy).  Reflective of the vast scope of activity that generates greenhouse gases, state policies have been enacted that reduce GHG emissions in such areas as renewable energy, air pollution control, agriculture and forestry, waste management, transportation, and energy development, among others.  In almost all cases, there have been multiple drivers behind and multiple benefits from these state policies. In Texas, for example, the desire for energy independence, economic development, and air pollution control drove the state to promote renewable energy. Not all states have demonstrated interest in these initiatives and some legislatures have taken steps to prevent state agencies from pursuing any efforts that are designed to reduce greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, there has been a remarkable increase and diversification of state policies since the late 1990s, reflected in their current operation in every region of the country. Collectively, they constitute a diverse set of policy innovations rich with lessons for the next generation of American climate change policy. Top

What kinds of energy policies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

  • Energy use and climate change are inextricably linked.  The majority of U.S. GHG emissions 84 percent — are in the form of CO2, resulting almost entirely from the combustion of fossil fuels.  As a result, energy policies that reduce fossil fuel use will reduce GHG emissions.  Fossil fuel use can be reduced by: (1) deploying technologies that increase energy efficiency (e.g., more efficient power plants, cars, and appliances) and (2) employing non-fossil fueled energy sources (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydroelectric, nuclear energy, or renewables-based hydrogen).  CO2 emissions also can be reduced by shifting from high-carbon to lower-carbon fuels (e.g., shifting from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector), and by employing carbon capture and sequestration technologies. 

    Given this close relationship between energy use and GHG emissions, near-term energy policy choices have significant future implications for climate change.  Climate-friendly energy policies fall into one of three general categories — policies that: (1) reduce GHG emissions now; (2) promote technology advancement or infrastructure development that will reduce the costs of achieving GHG emissions reductions in the future; and (3) minimize the amount of new capital investment in assets that would be substantially devalued (or "stranded") if a GHG program were implemented. Top