The Way Forward on Global Warming

Released by: Environment America

Executive Summary

Humanity is running out of time to stop the most dangerous impacts of global warming. Signs of global warming are appearing around the world – including in the United States – and the latest science suggests that future impacts are likely to occur sooner and be more severe than previously thought.

The failure of the international community to take strong action to limit global warming pollution and the death of comprehensive energy and climate legislation in the U.S. Congress in 2010 have been major setbacks in the battle to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. But there is still hope – there are plenty of opportunities to reduce emissions of global warming pollution in the United States, while restoring momentum in the fight against global warming.

By adopting a suite of clean energy policies at the local, state and federal levels, the United States could curb emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels) – representing a significant down payment on the emission reductions America must achieve to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, and putting the nation on a path to further emission reductions in the years ahead.

Table ES-1. Estimated Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emission Reductions Under the “Way Forward” Policy Scenario

Emission reductions

vs. business as usual

vs. 2008 emissions

estimated reductions vs. 2005 emissions

Over the past decade, clean energy policies at the local, state and federal levels have yielded large reductions in global warming pollution and put the nation on a path to a cleaner energy future. 

  • Thanks in large part to clean energy policies, America now produces five times as much wind power and eight times as much solar power as we did just seven years ago. Light-duty cars and trucks sold in 2009 were the most fuel efficient and least polluting in history, while the amount of new energy savings delivered by utility energy efficiency programs has nearly tripled since 2004. 
  • These efforts have helped change the trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States – generating emission reductions well beyond those triggered by the recent economic downturn. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy forecast that, by 2009, America would be emitting 6,453 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from energy use. In actuality, the United States emitted only 5,405 metric tons, 16 percent less than projected. 
  • State and federal clean energy policies will yield even more emission reductions in the years to come. By 2020, those policies are projected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 535.9 million metric tons – an amount equivalent to 7 percent of U.S. global warming pollution in 2007. 

America can build on the success of current clean energy policies in curbing global warming pollution in the short term. If done right, a focused strategy to adopt clean energy policies can restore political momentum in the fight against global warming. Such a strategy should:

  • Seek out opportunities to cut emissions wherever they may be found – including at the local, state and federal levels – with a special focus on pollution-reduction strategies that deliver tangible benefits to the environment, the economy and public health. 
  • Focus on efforts that unite the environmental community and bring in new partners.
  • Unite disparate local and state campaigns into a cohesive national effort. 
  • Erode the power of the fossil fuel industry over public policy.
  • Engage the public with efforts to reduce global warming at a variety of levels.
  • Use clean energy campaigns to educate the public about global warming.
  • Push the envelope with bold, innovative policy ideas wherever possible.

There are many opportunities for the United States to reduce global warming pollution at the local, state and federal level through clean energy policies. State and local action is not a “second-best” solution to the climate crisis – indeed, state and local efforts have often set the stage for the adoption of ambitious policies at the federal level.

  • Through the adoption of 30 clean energy policies or measures nationwide (see “The Way Forward,” page xx), the United States could reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use by as much as 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 34 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, while paving the way for further emission reductions in the years to come. 

Figure ES-1. Potential Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emission Reductions Under the “Way Forward” Policy Scenario (see page xx for a list of included policy scenarios)


Among those policies are many that simultaneously address America’s most pressing challenges, including:

  • Fossil fuel dependence – Stronger fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, tighter building energy codes for new residential and commercial buildings, improvements in the energy efficiency of homes and commercial buildings, and other strategies can reduce America’s depenence on fossil fuels – protecting the environment, stabilizing our economy, and enhancing our national security.
  • Job creation and economic prosperity – Renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency resource standards, and policies to encourage solar power can help to create vibrant green industries that employ American workers and give the United States a leg up in the global clean energy economy. 
  • Public health and the environment – Efforts to shift away from burning fossil fuels to meet our energy and transportation needs will reduce air and water pollution from the extraction of fossil fuels, protecting the health of millions of Americans while safeguarding our environment.

Local, state and federal governments should consider adoption of these policies to reduce global warming pollution and fossil fuel dependence. At the same time, public officials at all levels should resist pressure to roll back existing laws that protect our environment, move America toward a clean energy future, and set limits on global warming pollution.


The Way Forward: A Clean Energy Strategy to Address Global Warming

  • Retrofit three-quarters of America’s homes and businesses for improved energy efficiency.
  • Implement strong building energy codes to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption in new homes and businesses.
  • Set strong energy efficiency standards for household appliances and commercial equipment.
  • Promote the use of energy-efficient boilers and process heat systems in industrial facilities.
  • Encourage the use of energy-saving combined-heat-and-power systems in industry.
  • Install more than 200 gigawatts of solar panels and other forms of distributed renewable energy at residential, commercial and industrial buildings over the next two decades.
  • Adopt strong energy efficiency resource standards that require utilities to deliver energy efficiency improvements in homes, business and industry.
  • Require new light-duty vehicles to achieve fuel economy equivalent to 62 miles per gallon by 2025.
  • Facilitate the deployment of millions of plug-in vehicles that operate partly or solely on electricity.
  • Require the sale of energy-efficient replacement tires.
  • Ensure that the majority of new residential and commercial development in metropolitan areas takes place in compact, walkable communities with access to a range of transportation options.
  • Transition to pay-as-you-drive automobile insurance, which reduces vehicle travel and accident risk.
  • Adopt clean fuel standards that require a reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. 
  • Expand public transportation service to double ridership by 2030, while encouraging further ridership increases through better transit service and reducing per-mile global warming pollution from transit vehicles.
  • Encourage bicycle travel through efforts to improve the safety and convenience of bicycling.
  • Build high-speed rail lines in 11 high-priority corridors by 2030.
  • Adopt strong fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks.
  • Encourage energy efficiency improvements in airplanes and trains.
  • Bar the construction of new conventional coal-fired power plants – either through moratoria or the adoption of carbon dioxide performance standards for new power plants.
  • Adopt renewable electricity standards that call for 25 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean, renewable sources by 2025 and 33 percent by 2030.
  • Enforce proposed federal standards on emissions of smog-forming pollutants, soot and mercury from coal-fired power plants.
  • Adopt strong federal standards for global warming pollution from power plants and industrial facilities.
  • Strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which limits global warming pollution from power plants in 10 northeastern states.
  • Carry out President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which requires large reductions in global warming pollution from federal agencies.
  • Enforce existing state limits on global warming pollution.