A Consideration of how the US can become a world leader in emissions reductions, and thus, climate action. by Alec James

Greenhouse gas is a term that is frequently used in climate change media and research, but what does this term refer to, and how relevant is it to our lives? Individually, these gases exert different effects on the Earth, but they have a commonality in that they prevent the Sun’s radiation, emitted throughout the day, from exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, they retain this heat within the atmosphere which significantly contributes to warming the planet and as a result, global average temperature rise. This effect, labelled the greenhouse effect, is made exponentially worse as human activity continues to emit more of these gases, increasingly restricting radiation from leaving our atmosphere. Check out this EPA page for more specific information on greenhouse gases, and explore the NASA climate website for more details  on the greenhouse effect. In order to prevent this effect from having disastrous effects on the planet and its peoples, those countries that are the heaviest emitters of greenhouse gases should take initiative in implementing strong environmental policy to counteract the damage they have already done, if not reduce their continued output.

What can be considered to be the most pressing environmental issue of our time, as focused on by the Paris Climate Agreement and recent IPCC reports, is limiting global average temperature rise to 2° Celsius, if not 1.5°. Even with a limitation of 1.5°C, the world will still “face severe climate impacts”[1], and unfortunately we are on track to “exhaust the carbon budget associated with 1.5° C by 2030”2. To achieve emissions levels associated with staying under either of these specified temperatures will require an effort “well beyond anything that has been tried to date”[2] and emissions reductions within the range of 20-50% of 2010 emissions levels by 20302. Further to this, the world will need to become carbon neutral by “2050 to limit warming of 1.5° C and around 2075 for 2° C”2.

After understanding this contextual information, you may be thinking “alright, so a global effort is needed to prevent the disasters that will ensue as a result of climate change”. However, the issue is more complicated than that. Some countries emit a disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gases every year, while others are not economically developed enough to take measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change, without sacrificing the quality of life of their population. Specifically, the USA is the 2nd largest world greenhouse gas emitter[3], its current mitigation efforts have been rated “Critically insufficient”4 – if all government targets were within this range, warming would exceed 4° C – and its “emissions are projected to remain relatively constant in the next decade”4 when reductions will be the most crucial. Due to its failure to act sufficiently as of yet, and as one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, I would argue that the USA is duty-bound to emerge as one of the world leaders in climate action.

Since the Nixon administration, the US has been making progress in its environmental legislation, climate action and environmental awareness. However, climate change as an issue is very partisan, due to the conflicting interests and external influences involved between the Republicans and the Democrats. Consequently, both the Reagan administration and the recent Trump administration made significant rollbacks to US environmental policy in efforts to increase the economic freedom and prosperity associated with industry and fossil fuel energy. The Obama administration focused on spearheading US climate action. It created the Clean Power Plan in 2015[4], an ambitious piece of legislation which I believe could be significant in fast-tracking the US to becoming one of the world leaders in climate action, but which has also come under fire by the Trump administration. It was replaced by the much weaker Affordable Clean Energy plan in September 2019[5].

My proposal for the US to take the lead in worldwide climate action, particularly in emission standards and regulations, comprises several changes to Obama’s Clean Power Plan which would reverse the new regulation implemented by the Trump administration, and improve upon the original plan. The importance of this plan is that it provides a level playing field for all states to improve in their emission reductions, while also taking into account the individual energy mixes of these states. In this way, it “offers the power sector the ability to optimize pollution reductions while maintaining a reliable and affordable supply of electricity”6 for consumers. Moreover, even after being replaced by Trump’s administration, it has been projected to be successful, overachieving its “original target by reducing emissions in the electricity sector by 34% below 2005 levels by 2030”5. This success could be amplified considerably if the original Clean Power Plan was reinstated, followed by further changes to the plan as progress is made.

Firstly, the original Clean Power Plan should be reinstated, coupled with an initial regulation change to increase the reductions in power sector-associated carbon emissions for all states to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. There is clearly room to immediately improve upon the original goal of 32% reductions below 2005 levels, since we are already well underway to achieving it by 2030. A further regulation change should be made between 2025 and 2030 to require US utilities to produce all their electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2040. This may be a daunting concept for many, but the “incremental costs of decarbonization above our normal energy costs” would amount to “1 to 3 percent of U.S GDP per year during the period to 2050”[6], and would merely depend on a redirection of funding from fossil fuel-based technologies and infrastructure to zero-carbon equivalents. This is a necessary requirement to meeting the agreed Paris climate agreement goal for 2050, and would contribute to reducing US emissions by near 1.4 gigatons of CO2 equivalent[7]. Furthermore, it would fastrack the US shift to a renewable energy sector and establish the country as a leader in addressing climate change.

“The Clean Power Plan gives states the option to include carbon trading provisions in their state implementation plans”[8]. These provisions, deemed “the most efficient, cost-effective way to reduce climate-altering emissions”8, would reduce the economic shock of these emissions restrictions and help achieve net zero-carbon sourced energy. It is upon individual states to implement these trading provisions, and I would recommend that they do so if their carbon-emitting agents exhibit a willingness to take significant emission reduction measures. Market-based approaches to emissions reductions encourage agents to reduce their emissions more than necessary, so that they may profit off of their surplus permits. However, it allows wealthier emitting agents to take longer in reducing their emissions, and so should be a privilege that is implemented/taken away as state governments see fit in order to maximize their emissions reductions.

Unfortunately, there has been opposition to the Clean Power Plan. In 2016, 24 states asked the “courts to declare the plan unconstitutional”[9] because they were against the federal government having the authority to regulate state carbon emissions and claimed that it “will lead to higher electricity costs”9. However, the primary benefit of this proposal is that the US energy sector will save money by adapting to the need for renewable power before it becomes a requirement for the planet to survive. Moreover, by actively participating in mitigation, the US will be helping to keep global average temperature rise to below 2° C and thus save itself potential costs of climate change-induced death and destruction that would be the result of 2° C or more temperature rise.

If necessary, the US government could subsidize the investment into new renewable energy production by utilities, and tax the continued use of fossil fuels to produce energy, using the tax revenue to pay the subsidy in part. In this way, the American population should not experience a price increase of electricity.

It is important to remember that this is only one suggestion that should be employed in combination with many others if we hope to limit global average temperature rise. The US has a whole lot of emissions to reduce!



[1] “Half A Degree And A World Apart: The Difference In Climate Impacts Between 1.5˚C And 2˚C Of Warming”. World Resources Institute, 2020, https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/half-degree-and-world-apart-difference-climate-impacts-between-15-c-and-2-c-warming.

[2] Plumer, Brad, and Blacki Migliozzi. “How To Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.”. Nytimes.Com, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/02/13/climate/cut-us-emissions-with-policies-from-other-countries.html.

[3] “USA | Climate Action Tracker”. Climateactiontracker.Org, 2020, https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa/.

[4] “FACT SHEET: Overview Of The Clean Power Plan | Clean Power Plan | US EPA”. Archive.Epa.Gov, 2020, https://archive.epa.gov/epa/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-overview-clean-power-plan.html.

[5] “USA | Climate Action Tracker”. Climateactiontracker.Org, 2020, https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa/.

[6] Sachs, Jeffrey. “Getting To A Carbon-Free Economy”. The American Prospect, 2020, https://prospect.org/greennewdeal/getting-to-a-carbon-free-economy/.

[7] Plumer, Brad, and Blacki Migliozzi. “How To Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.”. Nytimes.Com, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/02/13/climate/cut-us-emissions-with-policies-from-other-countries.html.

[8] “Carbon Trading Under The Clean Power Plan | Center For Climate And Energy Solutions”. Center For Climate And Energy Solutions, 2020, https://www.c2es.org/document/carbon-trading-under-the-clean-power-plan/.

[9] “The Suit Against The Clean Power Plan, Explained”. Climatecentral.Org, 2020, https://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-suit-against-the-clean-power-plan-explained-20234.

One thought on “A Consideration of how the US can become a world leader in emissions reductions, and thus, climate action. by Alec James

  1. I think that the US Energy sector is going to be a critical component of reducing US emissions and you lay out a thorough plan for how states can equitably achieve these reductions. You’re correct that market-based policies will be key to influencing both states, constituents, and private actors who are more concerned about the health of the economy and US companies. The trick will be passing and durably implementing this plan because as we have seen with administration changes, climate change and environmental policy seems to be some of the most volatile policies overtime. Some how, this energy plan needs to actually be passed into law to make a lasting impact and even then, we can expect another wave of lawsuits from states adverse to virtually any climate policy. In order for this law to pass, constituents will also have to persuade lawmakers that this issue will determine their votes so that they have incentive to pass the legislation in the face of an aggressive American oil and gas lobby. The other major hurdle is the fact that with climate science in particular, facts do not seem to matter to a concerning proportion of voting/vocal population. So I think that emphasizing the impacts of the economy in the most tangible and present way possible for voters will be key to selling this plan to voters because the economic benefits are significant.

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