The Way Forward on Global Warming

Reducing Carbon Pollution Today and Restoring Momentum for Tomorrow by Promoting Clean Energy

With a gridlock on energy and climate policy in Congress, Rhode Island and other states can take matters into their own hands to dramatically reduce global warming emissions.

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center

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). These savings represent a significant down payment on the emission reductions America must achieve to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, and put the nation on a path to achieve further emission reductions in the years ahead. 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. If done right, a focused strategy to adopt clean energy policies can also 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 pollution 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 4), 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.

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 dependence 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.

Find Out More