The study gives a pessimistic view of the future even though carbon emissions have fallen in recent years because of the economic downturn and increased use of natural gas to produce electricity.
While the Obama administration has taken several steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, such as imposing the first carbon limits on vehicles and new power plants, the analysis suggests that non-carbon emissions from the U.S. natural gas boom and from chemicals used as refrigerants are on the rise.
The U.S. target is to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.
Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 8.7 percent compared with 2005 levels and are projected to stay near that level through 2035. But greenhouse gas emissions from other sources are expected to increase 18 percent by 2020 compared with the 2005 baseline and 36 percent by 2035.
Imposing greenhouse gas emission limits on existing power plants — a policy the White House is considering — could halve the gap between the current trajectory and the country’s 2020 climate target. Phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used in cooling equipment from soda machines to many car air conditioners, would make up 23 percent of the gap, according to the report, while stricter federal rules for natural-gas methane emissions and energy efficiency standards would make up 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of the difference.
“The U.S. is not yet on track to hit its 17 percent target, but we have the tools to get there,” said Nicholas Bianco, a senior associate at World Resources Institute and the report’s lead author.
Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, praised the report as “the first serious attempt to show what it would take to slash emissions over the next two decades without new legislation.”
Facing stiff congressional opposition, President Obama has made clear that he plans to undertake more ambitious action on climate change in his second term by using existing regulatory authority.
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, noted that the car sector accounts for roughly half of U.S. HFC use, “making this the biggest opportunity for getting rid of this super greenhouse gas.”
“The last time we changed the coolant in our cars, it only took three years to change the fleet in the U.S. and most of the world,” he added.
Without setting these and other climate polices in motion, the WRI analysts warn, the United States will find itself falling short of the pledge it made in 2009 as part of U.N. climate negotiations. While the commitment is more modest than many scientists and other world leaders have called for, the United States’ ability to meet it could influence whether more than 190 nations can broker a new climate pact over the next three years that would take effect in 2020.