Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center
American leadership in the fight against global warming is crucial. America is the world’s largest economy, the second-largest emitter of global warming pollution, and the nation responsible for more of the human-caused carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere than any other. Without prompt action by the United States and others to reduce global warming pollution, catastrophic impacts – from coastal flooding to food system disruptions – could become unavoidable.
Fortunately, even in the absence of a comprehensive response from the U.S. Congress, local and state governments and the Obama administration have taken leadership on global warming.
State and federal leadership on global warming is already having a significant impact. A set of clean energy policies adopted by states and the federal government and in effect from 2007 to 2012 reduced U.S. carbon dioxide pollution by 162 million metric tons in 2012. (See Figure ES-1.) That is equal to annual emissions from 34 million vehicles, or all the passenger cars and trucks in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Colorado combined. Those emission savings will grow in future years as the policies mature and more ambitious clean energy targets come into effect.
Figure ES-1. Estimated Carbon Dioxide Emission Reductions in 2012 from Policies Adopted or Implemented from 2007 to 2012
* Includes slight overlap between “Investments from RGGI” and “Energy Efficiency Requirements.”
America is moving forward. But science tells us that we will need to do much more to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Leaders at all levels of government should build on existing momentum to use energy more efficiently, ramp up production of energy from renewable sources, and scale back the use of dirty sources of energy with negative impacts on the climate.
State and federal action has led to a dramatic increase in clean, renewable energy.
- Twenty-nine states have adopted renewable electricity standards (RES) – requiring utilities to secure a portion of their power from renewable energy sources like the wind and the sun – contributing to a major expansion of renewable energy across the country, both in those states and beyond.
- The federal government has supported wind and solar energy through tax credits and through direct purchases of renewable energy. In 2012-2013, the federal government obtained 7 percent of its electricity from sources such as wind and solar energy.
- The amount of electricity generated from wind and solar energy increased four-fold from 2007 to 2012. This helped avert 60 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2012, equal to annual emissions from 13 million cars.
State and federal action has cut significant amounts of energy waste in homes, businesses and factories.
- Half of the states have adopted energy efficiency resource standards, requiring that a share of energy demand be met with energy efficiency improvements, and many other states have established energy efficiency programs supported by utility ratepayers. State and local energy efficiency programs from 2007 to 2012 reduced global warming emissions by 44 million metric tons in 2012. In addition, the federal government has cut energy use in its buildings by 9 percent per square foot since 2007-2008.
- Efficiency standards for common residential and commercial appliances cut an estimated 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 compared to a scenario without these policies. New or updated federal standards have been issued since 2009 that affect appliances responsible for 90 percent of residential energy use.
- New federal lighting standards cut electricity use and helped to avert 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2012, the first year the standards were in effect. Savings will rise in coming years.
The Clean Cars Program has improved fuel efficiency and cut global warming pollution from cars, trucks and SUVs.
- Long before the Obama administration took office, California and 13 other states were developing and implementing their own state-level clean car standards, which set limits on tailpipe emissions of smog-forming pollutants and pollutants that cause global warming.
- This state leadership paved the way for the Obama administration to set the first-ever federal carbon pollution standards for vehicles, which began with model-year 2012 cars.
- In 2012, the Clean Cars Program helped reduce vehicle carbon dioxide pollution by 39 million metric tons, equal to taking 8 million vehicles off the road for a year.
Other policies adopted by pioneering states have yielded additional emission benefits, while providing a foundation for achieving bigger savings in the future.
- California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey each have adopted statewide limits on global warming pollution, and by 2020 these caps could cut emissions by 270 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
- Nine Northeastern states have banded together to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which reduces global warming pollution from electricity generation by capping emissions, making carbon emitters pay for each ton of pollution, and investing in additional measures to help reduce pollution. In 2012, RGGI-funded energy efficiency and renewable energy programs reduced carbon dioxide emissions by about half a million metric tons.
- California’s low carbon fuel standard requires the use of less polluting transportation fuels through the replacement of gasoline and diesel with electricity, biofuels and other cleaner fuels. The low carbon fuel standard saved the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012.
The United States can further cut carbon pollution and achieve its emission goals with increased deployment of clean energy and further efforts to limit carbon pollution.
- In combination, the set of policies to improve energy efficiency, expand renewable energy and curb the use of dirty fossil fuels listed above prevented 162 million metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide pollution in 2012.
- The impact of these policies will increase over time as clean energy generation expands, as more buildings are renovated to be efficient, and as efficient vehicles replace more polluting ones. By 2020, these policies will annually prevent more than 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution – about 9 percent of 2005 emissions.
- Additional policy measures, such as limiting carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, can increase deployment of clean energy, further reduce pollution, and steer the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future.
Achieving America’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution will require action at all levels of government. In 2009, America pledged to the international community that we would reduce our global warming pollution to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The clean energy policies in this report have already delivered one-sixth of the emission reductions needed to achieve the nation’s Climate Action Plan 2020 emission target, and will deliver an even greater share of savings as those policies mature and build momentum over time. Additional leadership at the federal, state and local level will be needed to help the nation meet this target.
- The Obama administration should move forward with the National Climate Action Plan, including cleaning up carbon pollution from new and existing power plants and leading the development of an international climate treaty capable of preventing the worst impacts of global warming.
- Every state should begin developing a plan to meet or exceed federal standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. States should draw on the significant experience they have amassed to date with energy efficiency and the generation of electricity from renewable sources of energy.
- States and local governments should continue to shift toward a clean energy economy and aggressively reduce global warming pollution at every available opportunity. For example, every state should create or strengthen renewable electricity and energy efficiency resource standards, and local governments should push toward net-zero energy building codes.