10 recent climate policies that could make a difference

Stories from the past six months that show what local and national policy change can look like

(Washington Post illustration; Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post; iStock)

The most recent IPCC report makes it clear: There is no one silver bullet that can address global warming. Instead, nations, businesses, communities and individuals all have a role to play in helping to create a safer and more sustainable future. But without action from the world’s wealthiest countries, the nations and people who are least at fault for fueling climate change will be the ones who suffer the most, the scientists behind the report warn.

Policy change, while not the only tool, can help spur the kind of large-scale change needed to curb carbon pollution. At The Post, we’re here to keep you up to date on what governments, communities and individuals are doing — or not doing — to tackle climate change and protect the environment.

We’ve compiled some of our stories from the past six months that show that local and national policy change is possible — although more is needed to avoid global warming’s worst impacts. You can also keep up on the latest actions from President Biden’s administration to protect the environment and combat climate change with our environmental action tracker.

1

Federal funding to make homes more energy efficient

By Anna Phillips

In March, the Biden administration announced plans to spend roughly $3.2 billion to retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes in low-income communities with the aim of slashing Americans’ energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

The new funding is from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last year. Funding from the program can be used to help homeowners switch from traditional gas or oil-burning furnaces and energy-hungry air conditioners to electric heat pumps, which can heat and cool homes at a much lower cost to the environment.

Experts say these changes could ultimately slash the nation’s use of fossil fuels for home heating and electricity generation if they’re made on a large enough scale.

Read more about this new funding

2

A climate strategy for the U.S. Army

By Michael Birnbaum and Tik Root

The Defense Department has a vast footprint: It accounts for 56 percent of the federal government’s carbon footprint and 52 percent of its electricity use. In February, the Army released its first climate strategy, an effort to brace the service for a world beset by global-warming-driven conflicts.

The plan aims to slash the Army’s emissions in half by 2030; electrify all noncombat vehicles by 2035 and develop electric combat vehicles by 2050; and train a generation of officers on how to prepare for a hotter, more chaotic world. It is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to address climate change across government agencies, including at the Pentagon.

The strategy still needs to be backed by an actual budget. Until then, it remains partly theoretical. And there aren’t any price tags in the 12-page document that was released publicly. But experts say the goals are concrete and should result in swift movement.

Read more about the proposed strategy

3

A U.S. city decarbonizing every building

By Tik Root

In November, the city of Ithaca, N.Y., voted to electrify and decarbonize its buildings. It was the first such initiative of its kind in the country.

The city of about 30,000 people consists of some 6,000 homes and buildings. Decarbonization would involve looking at everything from how a building is heated to what appliances it uses, with the aim of moving away from the consumption of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.

Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Ithaca’s initiative is projected to cut about that much from the city’s overall carbon footprint — saving approximately 160,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of the emissions from about 35,000 cars driven for a year.

Read more about Ithaca’s initiative

4

Phasing out gas-powered lawn equipment

By Laura Vozzella, Julie Zauzmer Weil, Rebecca Tan and Antonio Olivo

A ban on gas-powered leaf blowers that was approved in 2018 took effect in Washington, D.C., in December — a delayed implementation that allowed the city and others affected time to switch to more eco-friendly electric leaf blowers or some other alternative.

The ban on gas-powered blowers comes with a potential $500 fine for violators, the culmination of a fight that began in 2016 against the notorious polluters, which can be as loud as heavy traffic and cause health problems for people who breathe their fumes.

As we reported in October, Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018, Americans used nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 3 million homes.

Read about other eco-friendly laws passed in the Washington region

5

Better fuel standards for cars coming by 2026

By Michael Laris

The Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency have finalized tailpipe pollution standards that would require average fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks to reach 49 miles per gallon in less than four years.

Stricter mileage standards can play a critical role in cutting greenhouse gases because the transportation sector ranks as the biggest source of these climate pollutants in the United States.

The new rule requires the nation’s automakers to increase fuel efficiency fleetwide by 8 percent starting late next year, another 8 percent the year after and 10 percent for model year 2026.

Read more about this new rule

6

Federal funding to plug wells that leak methane

By Tik Root

In January, the White House announced new steps to help curb emissions of methane, saying it would send $1.15 billion to states to clean up thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells that leak the powerful planet-warming gas.

The Biden administration also outlined plans to enforce requirements for pipeline operators to minimize methane leaks, undertake research to reduce methane emissions from beef and dairy systems, and form an interagency working group to measure and report greenhouse gases around the nation.

Scientists have said that reducing methane is one of the most practical — and quickest — ways to slow Earth’s warming and lessen the worsening impacts of climate change over the next several decades.

Read more about the plan for the funding

7

Offshore wind farms that will power New York

By Dino Grandoni

The Biden administration greenlit a major offshore wind project to supply power to New York in November, arriving as part of a broader push to build out renewable energy and tackle climate change.

The federal government approved a dozen wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island that will send power to the eastern end of Long Island. The move inches the country closer to the administration’s goal of generating 30 gigawatts of power from offshore wind energy by the end of the decade.

Harnessing the Atlantic’s fierce winds is prominent in the president’s plan to wean the U.S. power sector off fossil fuels, which are dangerously warming the planet.

Read more about the project

8

Restoring shower head standards

By Anna Phillips

In December, the Energy Department reversed a Trump-era rule that increased how much water could be used in a shower by allowing multiple nozzles to carry equal amounts at once.

Since 1994, federal law has capped flow from a shower head to 2.5 gallons of water per minute. After manufacturers started producing more luxurious shower fixtures with more than one nozzle, the Obama administration amended the rule so that the same limit applied to the entire fixture.

Although few Americans pay attention to these rules, environmentalists say they help combat climate change by lowering the use of energy derived from fossil fuels. Limits on water flow also have helped Western states cope with an extreme drought, which has left some reservoirs at or near historic lows.

9

Los Angeles aiming to be first major carbon-free U.S. city

By Erica Werner

In October, Los Angeles launched an ambitious plan to combat climate change by becoming the first major U.S. city run entirely on clean energy.

The approach could demand extreme, expensive and arguably improbable lifestyle changes from residents still addicted to car culture and 24/7 air conditioning. One forecast projects that up to 38 percent of single-family homes would need to be outfitted with solar panels to meet the targets — more than six times the current rate.

But Los Angeles also has a unique advantage over most other major U.S. cities in enacting energy policies because Angelenos pay their power bills to a city-owned utility instead of a for-profit company. That gives policymakers — and ultimately voters — much more leverage over the city’s energy mix than in other places, said Laura Jay, regional director for North America at C40 Cities, which connects cities internationally to fight climate change.

Read more about the city's plan

10

Federal dollars to cut on-road emissions

By Michael Laris

The U.S. Transportation Department on Thursday launched a $6.4 billion emissions reduction program created under last year’s infrastructure law, giving states broad leeway to spend the money as Washington seeks to guide them toward greener policies.

Instead of requiring states to meet specific emissions goals or face consequences, the new “Carbon Reduction Program” simply requires that states pursue projects and policies that reduce on-road emissions while they tap five years of funding.

States are required to draw up a broader strategy for lowering emissions. Possible uses for the funds include decreasing highway congestion, collecting electronic tolls, making streetlights more efficient, electrifying truck stops, building bike lanes and pedestrian trails, reducing exhaust near ports and improving transit.

Read more about the new Carbon Reduction Program

Is there a policy your local community has passed to become more climate friendly? Share it with us in the comments.