CURATED BY Brad Plumer
2014-10-19 22:51:30 -0400
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The United States is part of ongoing international talks to address global warming. As an initial step, the Obama administration has pledged to cut US greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020.
As of 2013, US emissions have fallen 10 percent below their 2005 levels, thanks to the recession, the decline of coal-fired power, and improved energy efficiency. But emissions are now rising again, and the administration will likely need a handful of additional policies to meet its target — including a recently proposed EPA rule to limit emissions from thousands of existing coal- and gas-fired power plants.
Environmental groups want Obama to craft the strictest possible rules on coal plants, as well as to block new fossil-fuel projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. On the other side, industry groups, Republicans, and even some Democrats have warned Obama not to wage a war on coal that will raise energy prices for ordinary households.
Obama has scaled back his climate-change ambitions over the years. He originally wanted to put the United States on track to cut emissions 80 percent by mid-century. But a cap-and-trade bill to make that happen died in Congress in 2010. Since then, the Obama administration has largely acted on its own, using the legal authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.
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Back in 2009, at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, the world's nations agreed that they should try to prevent the Earth's average temperature from rising more than 2° Celsius (or 3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. (Temperatures have already risen about 0.8°C so far.)
Staying under the 2°C ceiling will require most countries to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions drastically, but there's still a lot of disagreement on how to divvy up the responsibility. For now, the Obama administration has pledged to cut US emissions 17 percent between 2005 and 2020 — with the hope of negotiating more cuts with Europe, China, and other major emitters later on.
Some climate experts think that the current US goals are insufficient. If you add up all the pledges that countries have made so far, an analysis by Ecofys found, the world is likely to heat up more than 3°C (or 5.4°F) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
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US carbon-dioxide emissions from energy sources have fallen roughly 10 percent between 2005 and 2013:
There are a couple of big reasons for the drop:
Energy analysts don't expect these trends to last, however. As the economy continues to recover, emissions are projected to go back up (see chart). Meanwhile, natural gas prices have been rising from their previous low levels. As a result, coal-fired power made a comeback in 2013. The White House has argued that new policy steps are necessary to make sure emissions keep falling in the years ahead.
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Here's a list of the major actions the administration has taken on global warming. Many of them have been carried out through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
The EPA endangerment finding: Back in 2007, the Supreme Court said that the EPA was required to regulate carbon-dioxide under the Clean Air Act so long as there was evidence that the gas endangered the public health and welfare. In 2009, the EPA laid out the case for why this was so.
Fuel economy standard: As a first step, the EPA began regulating emissions from vehicles. Under a series of rules, all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States will now have to get an average of roughly 35.4 miles per gallon by 2025.
Permitting for large industrial facilities: Any new-or newly upgraded-industrial facility that's likely to emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon-dioxide per year has to first get a permit from the EPA and adopt the best available technology for carbon reduction.
Carbon regulations on all new power plants: Similarly, anyone who wants to build a new coal- or gas-fired power plant has to meet certain emissions standards. Modern combined-cycle natural-gas plants already meet the standard. But the rules are strict enough that it's basically impossible to build a new coal plant unless it can capture its own emissions and bury them underground (a still-unproven technology).
Carbon regulations on existing power plants. In June 2014, the Obama administration proposed new rules to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation's thousands of fossil-fuel power plants. The EPA will require all states to reduce their emissions through a combination of improved efficiency, switching from coal to gas, investing in renewables, or other options. All told, the plan is expected reduce power plant emissions an estimated 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Methane regulations. The Obama administration is currently mulling policies to curtail methane leaks from landfills and natural-gas infrastructure — including pipelines and wells. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, though the exact scale of the leaks is still unknown.
Complementary policies. The White House is hammering out an agreement with China and other countries to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), another set of greenhouse gases used in everything from soda machines to many car air conditioners. The Energy Department is setting new energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. The Interior Department is trying to speed up wind- and solar-power development on publicly owned lands. Foreign-aid agencies have stopped financing coal plants overseas (except when there are no possible alternatives).
Back in 2013, the White House detailed its climate agenda in full here.
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Every year, car manufacturers in the United States have to meet fuel-economy standards for the cars, SUVs, and light trucks they produce. The Obama administration has been ratcheting up these standards over time.
How the standards work now: Companies are free to produce whatever mix of gas-guzzling SUVs and smaller, more efficient cars each year. But the average fuel economy of their entire fleet must meet a certain threshold — or else the manufacturers have to pay a penalty. This is known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE. These standards were first enacted in 1975.
What Obama did: The Obama administration has been steadily raising these CAFE standards over the years. In 2011, the standard was 27.5 miles per gallon for all new cars and light trucks sold that year. The standard will keep rising each year until it hits 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025:
Now, the new cars and light trucks sold in 2025 won't actually average 54.5 miles per gallon on the road. That's because the tests to measure CAFE standards don't always do a good job of replicating real-world conditions. Most likely, the actual average fuel economy for new cars and light trucks will be around 35 miles per gallon in 2025.
Oil savings: The Energy Information Administration estimates that the stricter rules will cut US oil consumption by about 2.2 million barrels per day by 2025. (The US currently consumes about 15 million barrels per day.)
How automakers will meet them: Automakers are expected to meet the standard by both reducing the weight of vehicles and by employing "micro-hybrid" technology that automatically conserves fuel when the car is idle. (They can also produce more electric vehicles and hybrids to help meet the standard.)
Criticisms of the rule: Critics of CAFE standards point out that they make vehicles more expensive. Defenders usually counter that drivers save money on gasoline and come out ahead in the long run. Economists, meanwhile, argue that if you really want a policy that curtails gasoline use, then raising the gas tax is a more cost-effective measure. (A gas tax is, however, far less popular politically.)
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In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from all future coal and natural-gas power plants built in the United States. These rules essentially make it impossible to build traditional coal plants.
Natural gas plants: Under the standards, all future large natural-gas power plants can produce no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced. Most modern combined-cycle gas plants can already meet this standard, so this shouldn't have much impact.
Coal plants: All future coal plants, meanwhile, can emit no more than 1,100 pounds of carbon-dioxide per megawatt-hour. That's a bigger deal, because the average coal plant in the United States currently produces about 1,768 pounds of carbon-dioxide per megawatt-hour — well above the standard.
This means that utilities will only be able to build new coal plants if the plants can capture 20 to 40 percent of the carbon they produce and bury it underground. That technology is still in its infancy. So a lot hinges on whether carbon capture and storage technology will ever become viable. The EPA thinks this is possible — and that this rule will accelerate the technology. The coal industry thinks that carbon capture is still far off.
Projected impacts: In practice, this rule isn't likely to have much effect in the short term one way or the other. Electric utilities had stopped building new coal plants anyway — in part because natural gas is currently a cheaper alternative.
The EPA expects this rule to have little effect on either energy prices or US emissions. It basically solidifies the status quo. But there's a catch: If natural gas should become unexpectedly expensive, this rule will make it very hard for utilities to build new coal plants in the future to supply electricity.
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On June 2, 2014, the EPA proposed a new rule to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation's existing fossil-fuel power plants — the first of its kind.
Under the rule, the EPA will set different emissions targets for 49 states, based on their existing energy profile. (Vermont is exempted because it has no fossil-fuel electric plants.) Each state will then have to reduce their rate of emissions a certain amount by 2030.
When taken together, the EPA estimates these state plans will cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation's power sector as much as 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. (Emissions have already fallen about 15 percent between 2005 and 2013, so we're halfway there.)
States will have a lot of flexibility to pursue policies to reach their goals: using more efficient technology at coal plants, switching from coal to natural gas, boosting their use of solar or wind or nuclear power, or even joining regional cap-and-trade systems that require companies to pay to emit carbon-dioxide.
For now, this is only a proposal. The EPA will spend the next 120 days gathering comments from electric utilities, environmentalists, and anyone else. It will then work on a final regulation that takes effect in June 2015. States will then have until June 2016 to draw up plans to implement the rule (although they can apply for extensions or get more time if they're working together on regional plans).
There's a lot at stake here. Coal and natural gas plants were responsible for about 38 percent of all US carbon-dioxide emissions in 2012:
Sources of US carbon dioxide emissions 2012
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The Obama administration has set a goal of reducing US greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
Still, it's possible that policies could change: The above estimate includes the EPA's power plant rule in its current proposed form. But it doesn't include possible future measures to address methane leaks from natural-gas infrastructure or policies to crack down on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), another set of potent greenhouse gases.
The Obama administration, for its part, still insists that it can get "in the range" of a 17 percent cut by 2020 — depending on future policies. But emissions would then start rising again after 2020 unless additional measures were adopted.
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Many of the Obama administration's new pollution rules will impose higher costs on the operators of US coal power plants. But there are a variety of reasons that coal power is declining in the United States — it's not just Obama.
The "war on coal": Republicans and industry groups have accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal" with its environmental rules. That includes a variety of regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict air pollutants like mercury and sulfur-dioxide, as well as its proposed restrictions on greenhouse gases. Those rules will cost utilities billions of dollars in plant upgrades.
Why coal is declining: Coal has certainly declined dramatically in recent years. Back in 2011, there were 1,191 coal generation units operating in the United States. Since then, roughly one-quarter of them have either retired or are set to be retired. And hundreds of additional coal units are at risk of retirement in the years ahead.
There are two big reasons for this. The fracking boom has produced a glut of cheap natural gas. As a result, many power plant operators have found it uneconomical to continue operating their coal plants and are switching over to cheap natural gas. This has been a major factor in the decline of coal.
At the same time, new rules from the EPA on pollutants like mercury, sulfur-dioxide, and particulates are also putting pressure on utilities. Many plant owners may decide to shutter their older units rather than install costly new control technology. And that's before the upcoming rules on greenhouse gases.
It’s difficult to say precisely how much each factor matters here. One recent analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that dozens of US coal plants were at risk of retirement in the years ahead. Of those units, 77 percent were facing pressure to close because of the cost of new environmental regulations. But the other 23 percent would likely be at risk even if those EPA rules were repealed tomorrow — they're mainly vulnerable to competition from cheap natural gas and wind power.
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Most Republicans in Congress are strongly opposed to Obama's climate policies (as are a number of Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia).
House Republicans have tried multiple times to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide. Those resolutions have never made it through the Democratic-controlled Senate, however. In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney said he'd stop the EPA from regulating carbon-dioxide from power plants.
Among other criticisms, some Republicans point out that the Obama administration's carbon standards require new coal plants to adopt a technology — carbon capture and storage — that isn't even commercially viable yet.
Republicans have also charged that Obama isn't doing enough to spur fossil-fuel development in the United States. Among other things, they've called for more drilling on public lands and the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
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The Keystone XL pipeline is a controversial pipeline system to transport oil from Canada's oil sands down to refineries in the Gulf Coast.
At the moment, the Obama administration is deciding whether to approve the northern leg of the project, which would transport 730,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. Since the pipeline would cross the US-Canada border, the State Department has to approve it first.
At the moment, a final decision isn't expected until November 2014.
Arguments for the pipeline: Oil companies and the Canadian government want the pipeline approved. Over the last decade, they’ve started extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands — a gooey mix of sand, clay, and oil. But they’re finding it difficult to ship all that oil to refineries who can turn it into usable fuel. The pipeline would help with that, by offering cheaper connections to refineries down in Texas.
Labor unions also back the project: A State Department review estimated that the pipeline would support 42,000 jobs over its two-year construction period (that's about 35 permanent jobs, 3,900 temporary construction jobs, and the rest support jobs or indirect jobs resulting from employee spending). The project would contribute roughly $3.4 billion to the economy.
One 2013 poll found that 66 percent of Americans support the project.
Arguments against the pipeline: Green groups, on the other hand, are asking Obama to block the pipeline. They don’t want Canada’s tar sands industry to expand.
They point out that producing oil from Canada's tar sands is a particularly energy-intensive process that leads to 17 percent more carbon dioxide than regular oil production does over the entire life-cycle. That, in turn, will exacerbate global warming — especially at a time when the world will likely need to leave much of its existing oil, gas, and coal reserves underground if we want to avoid drastic climate change.
Better to leave the tar sands oil in the ground, green groups say say, and start shifting toward cleaner energy alternatives.
Obama's position: President Obama has said that he would only approve Keystone XL if the project does not "significantly exacerbate" carbon-dioxide emissions.
Yet a recent State Department review may have given him some wiggle room here. It argued that most of that tar sands oil was likely to find its way to market regardless. If Keystone XL is approved, the oil will move by pipeline. If Keystone XL is blocked, the oil will just move by rail (a somewhat more inconvenient and riskier method). So, the logic goes, the pipeline won't make that big a difference to global warming either way.
Green groups and other experts have disputed this analysis. There are key logistical factors, they note, that may slow the growth of rail in Western Canada. What's more, deadly crashes involving trains carrying oil have attracted more attention in recent months — and new regulations on train safety could make rail transport more expensive.
If so, then the Keystone XL project really would be crucial to the tar sands' expansion. Indeed, one analysis Maximilian Auffhammer of UC Berkeley suggests that blocking the pipeline would force producers to leave 1 billion barrels underground by 2030.
Ultimately, the Obama administration will have to make a "national interest" determination on Keystone XL that takes into account all sorts of factors, from economics to geopolitics to the environment. Right now, all signs suggest that Obama won't make a decision until after November 2014, as agencies wait for litigation in Nebraska over the pipeline's final route to resolve itself.
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Possibly. The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed carbon standards for existing power plants are almost certain to get challenged in court.
Industry groups and various states have been suing the EPA every time it puts out a new rule on carbon. So far, the agency has fended off these challenges, though there's one case still outstanding: In February, the Supreme Court heard arguments over a smaller aspect of the EPA's climate agenda — a permitting program for large facilities.
Much of what the EPA is doing in regulating carbon dioxide is fairly novel. And some experts think that the EPA's power plant rule could run the risk of getting stopped by the courts. "Pretty much everything the EPA does entails some legal risk," says Nathan Richardson, a legal scholar at Resources for the Future. "But some approaches are riskier than others."
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Yes. Many economists would say that putting a surcharge on carbon-dioxide and letting the market figure out how best to cut emissions is the ideal policy for tackling global warming.
That could include a carbon tax, where the government puts an extra tax on oil, gas, and coal — giving companies an incentive to use less or seek out alternatives. It could also include a cap-and-trade system, which is more elaborate. Congress would need to approve any policies like these, however, and Congress doesn't seem inclined to do much about climate change right now. (A cap-and-trade bill failed in the Senate in 2010.)
The White House has said it would be open to alternative policies to tackle global warming. President Obama has, for instance, proposed a clean energy standard that would require utilities to get a greater portion of their electricity from renewables. And Joseph Aldy, a former White House adviser, has hinted that Obama would be open to a carbon tax if Republicans were willing to negotiate. So far, those proposals have gone nowhere in Congress.
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No. The United States is only responsible for about 17 percent of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions. So even if Americans stopped polluting altogether, that wouldn't be enough to stop climate change.
One way to see this is through coal exports. Right now, the United States is using less and less coal each year — thanks to an abundance of cheap natural gas and new pollution regulations. But that coal isn't just sitting in the ground. Instead, mining companies are shipping it off to Asia, where it's getting burned in Chinese power plants.
So any serious attempt to mitigate global warming would have to involve all the major emitters — not just the United States, but Europe, China, India, and so forth. That's the aim of ongoing international climate talks.
Obama administration official officials have suggested that meeting their pledge of cutting emissions 17 percent target below 2005 levels by 2020 could help push those global talks along — and they're optimistic about further progress, citing a recent breakthrough with China to curtail hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse-gas.
Yet other groups are skeptical that the United States is doing enough. Consider this recent analysis from the Climate Action Tracker, which keeps tabs on commitments on emissions by various countries. The group finds that the United States would need to cut emissions more like 40 percent by 2020 if the world wants a shot at keeping global warming below 2°C. (And developing countries would have to respond with their own significant reductions.)
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Yes. Even if the world could zero out its emissions tomorrow, we've already loaded enough carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere to raise global temperatures by at least 1°C over pre-industrial levels. And even a mild temperature increase will likely mean things like more heat waves and higher sea-level rise. So that means adaptation.
Climate-change adaptation can take a variety of forms. In the United States, Louisiana has written up a plan to restore and protect its coastline from further erosion at the hands of sea-level rise over the next 50 years. Texas is trying to improve its drought-response plans. Governors out West have begun talks on how global warming might affect water allocation in the Colorado River. New York City has to think about how to deal with fiercer storm surges in the years ahead as ice sheets melt and sea levels rise.
But, so far, many countries aren't very far along. A comprehensive survey from October 2012 finds that some states and cities around the United States are beginning to draw up plans, but they're nowhere near adequate. "Most adaptation actions to date appear to be incremental changes," the survey notes, "not the transformational changes that may be needed in certain cases to adapt to significant changes in climate."
The White House has set up a "task force" that's supposed to help state and local agencies prepare for the impacts of climate change that are lurking in the near future, such as sea-level rise or flooding or extreme weather. One example: All federally-funded rebuilding after superstorm Sandy will have to take the risks of future flooding into account.
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Not at the moment.
Right now, the Obama administration is hoping to cut US greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It's unclear whether the US can meet that goal. And what's more, a State Department report noted that, U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions were on pace to start rising again after 2020, as the US economy continued to grow.
That's a problem for Obama's climate plan. The US would likely need to cut emissions 80 percent by mid-century to help avert a 2°C rise in global temperatures — the ostensible goal of most countries. (That's assuming other countries like China and India also agreed to cut.) And, right now, there's no plan for those longer term cuts.
A recent open letter by the Clean Air Task Force, a US think tank, noted that future cuts in emissions would require more than just slightly stricter EPA regulations. Clean-energy technology will have to get a lot better, too. "Ultimately," the letter notes, "we will need to capture the carbon from gas-fired power plants as well. Renewable energy faces challenges of scale, cost and intermittency; carbon capture and storage faces cost challenges at full scale; and current forms of nuclear power are challenged by safety, waste management, weapons proliferation and cost risks."
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This card stack is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.
So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Brad Plumer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Here's the full list of climate proposals the White House has laid out.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a full list and description of all the regulations that it is taking on climate change here.
The Congressional Research Service has a good rundown of climate-change legislation in the current Congress.
For a liberal view, Jonathan Chait has argued in New York Magazine that Obama's climate-change agenda is far more ambitious than most people think. For a conservative view, here are criticisms of Obama's agenda from the Heritage Foundation.
Ryan Lizza wrote a long feature in The New Yorker on Obama's thinking on the Keystone XL pipeline that offers a good sense of how the White House thinks about climate change.
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This is a running list of substantive updates, corrections, and additions to this card stack. These cards were last updated on May 1, 2014. Here is a summary of edits:
May 1: "What is the Keystone XL pipeline?" Added a more precise breakdown of the jobs projected to be created by the pipeline project.
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