EMISSIONS STANDARD: Policies such as the increase in fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks have helped drive down U.S. emissions of the greenhouse gases causing climate change. Image: Flickr/Simone Ramelia
President Obama mentioned climate change almost in passing during last night's State of the Union address, noting: "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change."
But what Obama didn't mention is that declining energy consumption in a sluggish economy and well-placed regulations targeting air pollution and oil use are creating a more climate-friendly United States. Fuel-economy standards for gasoline guzzlers and the prospect that stable, cheaper natural gas supplies will speed closure of the nation's dirtiest coal-fired utilities are beginning to depress long-term projections for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
"They all point in the same direction. My view is that the U.S. is accomplishing something of significance," said Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University. "Other countries, European and the emerging economies, really want to see an ambitious domestic climate policy. Given our current politics, that's exceptionally unlikely."
The United States will still struggle to meet Obama's pledge during global climate talks to reduce emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. But the latest long-term energy projections are painting a far sunnier picture than people had anticipated, coming two years after the United Nations' Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit failed to produce a binding accord.
In an energy outlook this week, analysts at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted a dramatic decline in U.S. energy demand through 2035 and a reconfigured energy pie that sidelines a significant amount of coal for natural gas. According to EIA, an arm of the Energy Department, carbon dioxide emissions tied to energy consumption flat-lines through 2035. By 2020, U.S. emissions into the atmosphere are projected to be 7 percent below their 2005 level of nearly 6 billion metric tons of carbon. By 2035, emissions are expected to still be below what they were in 2005.
Some experts think that could change if the U.S. economy picks up steam and industrial plants start humming again.
"Perhaps the Obama policies could drive us away from coal, but I think that's too optimistic," said Michael Wara, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. "The mix of coal and gas is going to shift in a way that lowers emissions in the near term. Then by 2020, it goes up again."
A slew of new coal-fired generators are coming online, he noted, and while those plants are sleeker and more efficient, they're still not nearly as clean as gas-fired turbines or renewable power sources.
"Some people had hoped -- or dreaded -- that pollution controls would accelerate a shift away from coal to gas. When you actually crunch the numbers, that's not really true."
Combination of economic trends and policies
Still, for now an array of Obama administration actions and economic trends are conspiring to cut emissions, according to EIA: Americans are using less oil because of high gasoline prices; carmakers are complying with federal fuel economy standards; electricity companies are becoming more efficient; state renewable energy rules are ushering wind and solar energy onto the power grids; gas prices are competitive with coal; and federal air quality regulations are closing the dirtiest power plants.
"Those will have profound effects on carbon dioxide emissions," Stavins said, "because they'll reduce investment in new coal and slow the use of existing coal."
Obama has taken heat from environmental groups for the perception that he hasn't done enough to address climate change. After passing the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House in the summer of 2009 by a slim margin, the appetite in Congress and at the White House for a bruising Senate fight eroded. Elections sweeping Republicans into the House leadership set climate proposals on a path to nowhere in 2010 and 2011 as partisanship marginalized supporters of any federal bill aimed at cutting global warming pollution.