Last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded the alarm: The world has until 2030 to implement “rapid and far-reaching” changes to our energy, infrastructure and industrial systems to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which could be catastrophic. But the scale of the challenge can appear so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start. The Post asked activists, politicians and researchers for climate policy ideas that offer hope. Radical change from one state, or even the whole United States, won’t address climate change on its own, but taking these actions could help start the planet down a path toward a better future.
11 policy ideas to protect the planet
- Set local emissions goals
- Be smart about your air conditioner
- Encourage electric vehicles
- Be smart about nuclear power
- Make it easier to live without cars
- Prevent wasted food — the right way
- Incentivize carbon farming
- Curb the effects of meat and dairy
- Adopt a carbon tax
- Open electric markets to competition
- Pass a Green New Deal
- Illustrations by Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Set local emissions goals
In June 2017, the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors passed a resolution recognizing the risk and threats of failing to draw down carbon emissions. As a local government in Pennsylvania, the third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the United States despite having a right to a clean environment guaranteed in its state constitution, we knew we had to act. Our resolution calls for carbon neutrality as soon as feasible but no later than 2050.
Passing the resolution provided the opportunity and, arguably, the imperative to integrate emissions impacts into all township decision-making. By setting such a goal at the local level, governments can figure out what solutions fit their community’s needs and work within their state’s legislative landscape. For Ferguson Township, this has meant 100 percent wind power, designing a LEED Gold public works building, working on zoning changes to incentivize green building, low-impact stormwater infrastructure, and working with local school kids, teachers and families to plant trees.
Ferguson Township also created a Climate Action Committee that has conducted a municipal-wide greenhouse-gas inventory. Inventorying emissions establishes a credible baseline from which we can measure our progress. But equally important and less easily quantifiable benefits lie beyond this policy’s tangible and predictable outcomes. Effective climate action plans require that residents, public officials, businesses and other stakeholders cultivate trusting working relationships with one another. The policy directive created the inspiration and framework for change, but all of us in Ferguson Township must embrace it and take action to achieve results.
Be smart about your air conditioner
Air conditioners have a high impact on the climate, both in the energy and refrigerants they use — super greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs are short-lived pollutants, but they have an impact on global warming that’s hundreds to thousands of times more potent than that of carbon dioxide by mass. Yet as the world gets hotter, air-conditioner demand is growing, with experts projecting we’ll have 4.5 billion units by 2050, up from about 1.2 billion today. Some states, including California, are taking action to address this problem now.
Globally, a phasedown of HFC refrigerants could avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by 2100; the Montreal Protocol now requires countries to reduce the use of these chemicals starting in January. Parallel efforts to improve the efficiency of air conditioners can double this climate benefit, with the potential to avoid up to a full degree Celsius by the end of the century.
In addition to buying only super-efficient air conditioners — which over the lifetime of the unit will save you money and reduce climate impacts and air pollutants — you can encourage your state legislators to follow the model of California, which requires a 40 percent reduction in HFCs by 2030. Its latest efforts further prohibit refrigerants with high global warming potential in new air conditioners and commits to supporting other states to adopt similar prohibitions. New York, Maryland and Connecticut have followed suit, and other states can, too. You can also encourage your legislators to require the highest energy efficiency standards for air conditioners, and to use their buying power to insist on only the most efficient equipment.
Encourage electric vehicles
Americans are driving more miles in the same old cars, and because we use fuels made from oil to power most of our transportation system, moving people and goods around is the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions. Because we use little oil to make electricity, and the power grid is getting cleaner as natural gas and renewables replace coal, electrifying as much of the transportation sector as possible could speed up an energy transition.
There is a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 to get people to buy electric cars, but it is starting to phase out for some types of cars. Combined with incentives in some states, these tax credits have been helpful, but electric vehicles still make up only a few percent of all vehicle sales. Getting more electric vehicles on the road requires expanded federal tax credits and making them available for buyers when they’re at the car dealership, rather than in their tax returns the following year. This would help more low- and middle-income car buyers make the jump to electric. The federal government could also once again offer tax credits or direct infrastructure grants to local governments and firms to build a robust charging-station network so that these new electric car owners have a place to plug in.
State and local policymakers can mirror these efforts but can also accelerate transportation electrification in other ways. There are more than 8 million fleet vehicles in the United States; governments could electrify a majority of their vehicles and induce businesses to follow their lead. State and local governments could also experiment with electric-only delivery zones and use other innovative incentives to encourage electrification of freight, shared hailed vehicles and, eventually, automated vehicles.
Creating a transportation system where we can move around without oil is going to be challenging. But we’ll get cars that are more fun to drive, cleaner air and a climate we can recognize.
Be smart about nuclear power
My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently released an analysis offering a sensible way for the United States to help combat climate change: Keep safely operating nuclear plants running until they can be replaced by other low-carbon technologies.
Our report found that more than a third of the nation’s 60 plants operating at the end of 2017 — 22 percent of U.S. nuclear power capacity — are either unprofitable or slated to close within the next 10 years. Unless federal and state governments adopt new policies, these and other economically marginal plants will likely be replaced primarily by natural gas. If that happens, the U.S. electric power sector’s carbon emissions could increase as much as 6 percent by 2035.
To help preserve existing nuclear power — and boost investments in renewables and energy efficiency — the federal government and states should establish a carbon price or a low-carbon electricity standard. These policies would help level the playing field for low-carbon technologies by incorporating the cost of climate-change-related damage into the price of fossil fuels.
Absent those measures, some states are providing subsidies to prevent uneconomical plants from closing abruptly. States considering that approach should limit their subsidies and adjust them over time to protect consumers, and provide them only to plants that meet or exceed the most stringent federal safety standards. Subsidies also should go hand in hand with increased investments in renewables and energy efficiency as part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions.
Finally, the 60-year operating licenses for most reactors in the United States are scheduled to expire between 2030 and 2050. Nuclear plant owners should be required to develop worker and community transition plans to prepare for their facilities’ eventual retirement and decommissioning.
Make it easier to live without cars
We have a suite of simple tools that can help us dramatically curb emissions from transportation: building and redesigning our streets to make it safer and more convenient for people to walk and bike more and drive less — what we call Complete Streets policies. In fact, there’s no way we’ll be able to sufficiently reduce our emissions without doing this. As long as we design our streets only for cars, we are designing a high-carbon future.
Walking or biking could substitute for 41 percent of short car trips, saving nearly 5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from car travel. So why don’t we walk and bike more? We certainly want to. A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors found that a majority of Americans would prefer to live in walkable communities with transit service. But we drive because our streets have been designed for our vehicles, not us. And walking is not just unpleasant on auto-oriented roads; it’s often deadly. While traffic fatalities overall have been decreasing, pedestrian fatalities are increasing, up to nearly 6,000 people in 2017.
Complete Streets policies are commitments by government to design our streets to make cycling, walking, riding transit and driving safe, comfortable, reliable and affordable. That includes better lighting and crosswalks for pedestrians, protected bike lanes for bicyclists, and good shelters and signage for people waiting for the bus.
According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, almost 50 percent of all car trips taken were three miles or less; more than 20 percent were a mile or less. The potential climate benefits of shifting even a portion of those trips to lower-carbon modes are undeniable. Complete Streets policies are an important part of a climate change strategy. Residents can urge their city councils or state legislatures to pass Complete Streets legislation, improving safety and making more zero-emissions trips easier for everyone to take.
Prevent wasted food — the right way
When Project Drawdown ranked the 80 most impactful climate change solutions, No. 3 was addressing waste of food. In the United States, we waste up to 40 percent of our food supply — enough nutritional value to feed millions. The United Nations estimates that if wasted food was a country, its greenhouse-gas emissions would rank third globally. That’s in part because of the food system’s outsize climate impact: It accounts for an estimated 19 percent to 29 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.
The United States and many states and localities have signed onto a global target of halving wasted food by 2030. So-called food waste bans, policies restricting food from going to landfills, can help get there. Five states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont) and multiple municipalities and international locations have such bans or mandatory food recycling. Others incentivize reduced landfilling with “pay as you throw” approaches.
These policies can lead to increased food recycling (composting or anaerobic digestion) and related infrastructure. But while preferable to leaving food to release methane in landfills, recycling can’t make up for the emissions that went into the food’s production, processing, distribution, heating and cooling. Recycling can even be perceived as a justification for discarding good food.
Among food waste mitigation strategies, by far, the greater climate benefit per ton comes from avoiding unnecessary food production. Accordingly, waste-ban policies should be considered incomplete unless they promote waste prevention and donation as the preferred approaches. California, for instance, has passed a bill requiring that, by 2025, at least 20 percent of edible food that would otherwise be disposed instead be recovered to eat.
Halving waste of food is an audacious target, but it’s achievable. Food waste bans can dramatically ramp up the prevention, recovery and recycling of food. Most ban policies are fairly new, and more research is needed, but thus far it appears that, approached right, they can be a win-win-win-win-win for waste mitigation, jobs, economic activity, food insecurity and, of course, the climate.
Incentivize carbon farming
The agricultural industry is a leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions globally. Practices that improve soil health will play a critical role in our efforts to combat climate change by reducing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and states can help by passing legislation that incentivizes carbon farming.
Carbon farming refers to climate-smart agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by sequestering, or storing, carbon in the soil instead of promoting its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Carbon farming improves soil health and productivity, thereby maximizing crop yields. It also increases soil resilience and reduces the need for pesticides.
Carbon-farming strategies include planting cover crops that increase water retention and soil nutrients and keep weeds down; using no-till approaches that limit aeration of surface soils and reduce erosion; and planting diverse perennial forages with deeper root systems for grazing animals. Longer root systems increase organic matter (carbon-based molecules) in the soil. These practices could have a huge impact on our emissions: Project Drawdown estimates that widespread adoption of these types of practices could reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 23.2 gigatons by 2050.
In New York, I introduced the Carbon Farming Act, a first-of-its-kind bill that would give farmers a financial incentive for implementing climate-smart practices. This legislation creates a tax credit for farmers to continue these practices and to encourage others to begin them, because policies that reward — rather than punish through carbon penalties, for example — will ultimately be more effective and equitable.
Farmers, who are responsible for producing the fresh food we put on our tables and depend on weather for their livelihoods, could make significant contributions to helping us reach emission reduction goals. Incentivizing carbon-farming practices will ensure that agriculture’s future is both economically and environmentally sustainable.
Curb the effects of meat and dairy
We must begin regulating the factory-farm model of livestock production to step up the fight on climate change. A 2018 report from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy and GRAIN analyzed the greenhouse-gas emissions of the world’s 35 biggest meat and dairy conglomerates and found that the top 20 emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than several Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries did.
The mass production of ruminant animals produces untenable amounts of climate-warming methane. The conversion of large swaths of land into feed grain monocultures to raise ever-growing numbers of animals emits the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, as synthetic fertilizers leach into soils and water. Additionally, this land-use change releases precious carbon stocks from soils into the atmosphere.
Now is the time to call the meat and dairy conglomerates to account. Let’s start by curbing both over-production and emissions by securing a moratorium on new factory farms, a.k.a. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Predominantly located in low-income communities and, often, communities of color, these major polluters of air and water are already facing tenacious public opposition. From North Carolina, to Wisconsin and Iowa, to California and Oregon, communities are calling on their local and state governments to step up and better regulate these polluters.
Then, let’s stop funneling taxpayer money to these big corporations through various farm-bill programs, such as the guaranteed loan program that often backs the construction and expansion of CAFOs. Instead, we should start investing in a just transition to agricultural systems that lift up rural communities by supporting farmers practicing sustainable grazing practices, expanding the infrastructure for the growing grass-fed beef and dairy markets, and enforcing fair market and fair contract rules for the livestock industry. That will improve the quality of our food, air, soil, water and climate.
Adopt a carbon tax
Warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather caused by greenhouse emissions have the potential to adversely affect the health of every American and the strength of our economy, consequently imposing substantial costs on us and future generations.
We must recognize these costs to our nation and world. We have a responsibility to promote policies that reduce greenhouse gases while maintaining economic growth and supporting innovation. We will need new ways to produce goods, transport ourselves and power our economy across various sectors.
The best way to inspire such a wide-ranging, meaningful change, at the pace that we need it, is putting a price on carbon. When carefully crafted, a carbon price can strengthen our economy, reduce emissions and encourage innovation.
That was my goal in drafting the Market Choice Act, a bill that would repeal the federal gas and aviation fuel taxes and swap them for a tax on carbon emissions at the source. Revenue raised would then be used to robustly fund our nation’s infrastructure, help coastal communities adapt to the immediate effects of climate change and give low-income Americans and displaced workers assistance in the transition. Analysis from Columbia University indicates this legislation would exceed the emissions goals of the Paris agreement and President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan would also maintain American manufacturing competitiveness and provide regulatory certainty to allow for long-term investments in cleaner energy projects, so long as emissions goals are being met.
Economic prosperity and being good stewards of our environment are not mutually exclusive. By reducing our emissions, we ensure the protection of our economy, infrastructure and the general welfare of all Americans.
Open electric markets to competition
Throughout much of the country, consumers have no choice when it comes to buying electricity. Local utilities are given monopoly privileges with oversight from state regulatory bodies. This system wasn’t set up to keep the nation’s electricity system dirty, but it often functions that way. Over the past decade, market-driven declines in the price of renewable energy and natural gas have led to the closure of many coal power plants. But because electric rates in monopoly systems are set based on what’s needed for utilities to recover their costs, the utility companies have less incentive to retire uneconomical plants.
Introducing competition to the electric market changes that. Instead of a centrally planned organization deciding which types of power to use, electricity generators must compete with each other to provide reliable power at the lowest cost. Generators thus have strong incentives to switch to cleaner fuels when they become cheaper. It’s no mere coincidence that the state with the most wind generation — Texas — also has the most free electric market in the nation. Competition can even improve the performance of fossil-fuel plants. Between 1991 and 2005, states with electrical competition saw a 6 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from existing coal plants, due to improved fuel efficiency.
Electric competition has also made providers more responsive to the growing consumer demand for clean energy. The number of “green choice” customers in states with retail competition increased by 142 percent from 2010 to 2012.
Introducing more competition into the electric system would help speed the transition to cleaner energy. And even where states might not be ready to embrace full restructuring, smaller steps can still help. Some states have considered creating an exemption to the typical monopoly restrictions for customers who want to buy 100 percent renewable electricity on the open market. Reducing emissions from the power sector is a critical part of the response to climate change, and electric competition needs to be a part of that conversation.
Pass a Green New Deal
We don’t have a moment to waste. To address the full scope of the climate crisis, we need massive government action to overhaul our economy away from fossil fuels to clean energy. We need a Green New Deal — a broad and ambitious package of policies and investments that would put millions of Americans to work transforming our economy away from fossil fuels by 2030, restoring the American landscape and ensuring that everyone has clean air and water, all in ways that prioritize justice and equity and grow the economy.
Specifically, we could transition 100 percent of our electricity generation to renewable sources; build a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid; upgrade every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety; and transition the manufacturing, agriculture and transportation industries away from coal, oil and gas. A Green New Deal would also invest in projects to capture climate-damaging gases already in the atmosphere and make the United States an undisputed global leader in green technology, ensuring that the advances we make can be shared with the global community.
While the Green New Deal would require a scale of government action not seen since the Great Depression and World War II, this type of job-creating policy is extremely popular and could ensure economic security to millions of Americans for the first time in decades, especially people of color and poor or middle-class Americans who have been left out of the economic gains of the past four decades. We can solve the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced and protect our air, water and land for future generations.
Young people have a right to good jobs and a livable future. The Green New Deal is a winning plan for both.
Editing by Anna Walsh. Illustrations by Tom Toles. Copy editing by Lydia Rebac.