How the Obama administration could hit its climate target, in 1 chart

September 26, 2013

The Obama administration has consistently said the United States can meet its 2020 climate goal of reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent compared to 2005 levels. Now, in a new biennial report it will release for public comment Thursday, it explains how it can do it.


FILE - In this June 25, 2013, file photo President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his brow during an ambitious speech about climate change under a steaming hot sun at Georgetown University in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The 30-page report spells out how the climate action plan President Obama pledged to undertake in June -- which includes carbon limits on new and existing power plants, stricter energy efficiency standards, and policies to curb hydrofluorocarbons and methane -- could bring the nation within reach of its 17 percent target.


This chart shows how recent policies such as the administration's support for solar and wind power and stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, along with market forces like utilities' switching from coal to natural gas, have cut the nation's emissions in recent years. But unless Obama pursues other federal curbs on greenhouse emissions, they will begin rising again.

According to the administration's estimate, overall U.S. emissions will be between 14 and 20 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade if the federal government executes the president's climate action plan.

Heather Zichal, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said at a forum Wednesday at the Bipartisan Policy Center , that the report "outlines how U.S. action on climate change puts us on a path" to meet its 2020 goal and would serve as "a benchmark" for other countries, which are obligated to report on their own climate policies next year as part of the U.N. climate negotiations.

Daniel J. Weiss, who directs climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote in an e-mail that the report shows what is possible under the administration's plan. "Hopefully, Congress will support this effort rather attempt to undermine it," he wrote.

But Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, cautioned that the U.S. will only fulfill its international climate pledge if it pushes aggressively on several fronts for the remainder of Obama's second term. How the Environmental Protection Agency crafts its rule for existing power plants, he noted, will be as important as the fact that it plans to regulate their carbon dioxide emissions.

"The 17 percent target is achievable, but not a foregone conclusion," he said in an interview, "unless the administration uses all the tools in its toolbox, and does so with ambition."

The new report could give some of the administration's fiercest critics, including those in the coal and oil industry, one more reason to worry. While some of the policies it is pursuing as part of its climate goal are non-controversial, such as phrasing out the potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerants and automobile air conditioners, its push to curb CO2 from both new and existing power plants has sparked fierce opposition.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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