The federal climate: A look back and ahead

A year ago, the path ahead for climate action at the federal level was murky. Congress clearly had little appetite for climate and energy legislation, and while President Obama had declared that climate change would be a priority in his second term, the details were hazy.

Heading into 2014, there is a clear direction and a credible and comprehensive plan for action. The Climate Action Plan the president announced in June outlines a wide array of steps his administration plans to take using existing authorities to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, expand renewable and other low-carbon energy sources, and strengthen resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts.

Given congressional paralysis, this plan is likely to be the blueprint for U.S. climate action for at least the next three years. The reaction at the United Nations climate conference last month in Warsaw showed that other countries have noticed, and are encouraged to see stronger U.S. action.

A key step in implementing the plan was the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal in September to limit carbon emissions from new power plants. Other elements of the plan that have already seen movement include:

  • Advanced fossil energy loan guarantees: The Department of Energy (DOE) made available this week up to $8 billion in loan guarantees for advanced fossil projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon capture and storage, low-carbon power systems, and efficiency improvements.
  • Energy efficiency standards: DOE has set new energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens, proposed a new standard for electric motors, and is considering setting or strengthening standards for nine other types of appliances and equipment.
  • Limiting overseas coal-fired power plants: The Treasury Department announced in October that it is ending U.S. support for multilateral development bank funding for most new overseas coal projects.
  • Building climate resilience: A November executive order establishes a task force of state and local leaders to offer advice to federal agencies to support climate preparedness.
  • Federal clean energy deployment: A December executive order requires federal agencies to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewables, up from 7 percent now.

By far the biggest challenge going forward will be setting standards to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. President Obama has set an ambitious timetable for EPA to propose the standards by June 2014 and finalize them a year later. The trick for EPA will be crafting a standard ambitious enough to make a difference, but flexible enough to allow industry and states to implement it in the most efficient and economical way possible.

A broader challenge is in the multifaceted nature of the Climate Action Plan itself. With responsibility for the climate issue dispersed across several White House offices and Cabinet agencies, delivering on the president’s climate agenda requires a strong coordinating hand in the White House. President Obama’s appointment of former White House chief of staff John Podesta as his counselor, with a focus on climate and energy issues, could help.

Successfully implemented, the plan can put the United States on a path to meet its international pledge to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The coming year will be critically important for making progress, and for laying the foundation for deeper cuts in the years beyond.