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 forge ahead on its own.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. 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 all emissions—emissions that are causing global temperature increases, rising seas, and destructive droughts, floods, and hurricanes, according to a government advisory panel report released last month.
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 and hinder the U.S. economy, and make the electrical grid less reliable.
It is possible, however, to take the coal industry’s concerns into account. The Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed setting individual state budgets for carbon emissions, with coal plants getting a slightly higher allotment—1,500 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour—than natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency could work with states to set overall limits on carbon emissions and then allow local governments to 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.
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 White House needs to speed its own efforts toward making appliances and equipment such as walk-in freezers more efficient. Each month’s delay costs consumers and businesses $300 million in savings and adds 4.4 million metric tons of carbon to 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 on alternative-fuel technologies and to 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 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 sources.
In Obama’s first term, the EPA issued rules curbing mercury emissions, updating boilers, and making power plants cleaner in general. As the age of congressional sclerosis continues, rule-making remains Obama’s most powerful tool for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.