The United States is likely to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.3 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, falling just shy of the 17 percent target pledged by President Obama at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, according to a new study.

"With the failure to pass comprehensive climate legislation in the 2010-2011 Congress, most analysts in the U.S. and internationally would have concluded that the U.S. is doing nothing to meet its Copenhagen pledge," said Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future (RFF) and lead author of the report.

"The surprise is that we appear to be on course to meet that pledge, and that's a finding that is very different than the expectation that people are carrying around in the U.S. and internationally," he added.

Burtraw and co-author Matt Woerman calculate that the largest portion of projected emissions reductions will come about through U.S. EPA regulations of mobile sources, such as cars and light trucks, and stationary sources, such as power plants and industrial facilities.

"Taken together, these initiatives are expected to achieve emissions reductions of 10.5 percent by 2020 compared to a 2005 baseline," says the report.

Another 3.3 percent reduction in emissions is likely to be achieved through trends in energy markets, mainly the low price of natural gas and improvements in energy efficiencies.

Natural gas emits about half as much carbon as coal. Recent technological advances have opened up vast domestic deposits of shale gas on the East Coast, in Texas and Oklahoma, and in the Great Plains. Gas prices have plummeted, leading many energy producers to abandon coal-fired generation.

The states contribute
State and regional carbon emissions-reduction efforts are likely to add a 2.5 percent drop by 2020, says the report.

In January, California will launch a cap-and-trade system that will affect power producers and industry as well as fund renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caps emissions from power plants in nine Northeastern states. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted renewable energy standards, and 24 states have funded energy efficiency programs.

"We look at [state and regional initiatives] and take a fairly conservative view," Burtraw said. "We assume no other states will adopt energy standards, which appears to defy recent history because states continue to make moves in these areas."

Pending EPA regulations mean "substantial uncertainties" remain with at least some of the projected reductions, but experts concur with the general conclusions of the analysis.

"I think it's an important observation that many people have noticed but hasn't gotten much attention," said Daniel Lashof, director of the National Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program. Lashof authored in July an NRDC issue brief projecting a smaller reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than in the RFF study, but at a level that put the 17 percent target "squarely within reach."

While RFF projects the United States to come close to meeting its emissions reduction pledge, the authors expect the United States to fail to fulfill its commitment to the Green Climate Fund, which was agreed to in Copenhagen.

Pledges to the fund from developed nations are expected to reach $100 billion per year by 2020 and include both public aid and private investment. The funds will go to boosting less developed nations' green energy production and assist them in adapting to the rising seas and extreme weather events brought about by global warming.

Patchwork solution has limited future
The climate bill introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which was approved by the House in 2009, would have provided financing for the climate fund through the sale of carbon offset credits. But the Senate did not approve a companion measure, so the United States lacks a scheme for meeting its financing commitment.

Burtraw said that one surprising conclusion is that he and Woerman project greater emissions reductions under the combination of EPA regulations, continued energy market trends and state and regional efforts than those projected under the passage of the Waxman-Markey legislation.

The reason, he said, is that two-thirds of the emissions reduction pledges could be achieved through international and domestic carbon offsets and by banking emissions reductions. Emissions under the bill might have fallen 8.2 percent and would have pre-empted EPA action on greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think that a cap-and-trade program would have been more efficient, from an international perspective, in achieving greenhouse gas reductions," said Burtraw. "But what we see is that the current regulations can do a good job of IDing low-hanging fruit -- the kinds of things like regulation of mobile sources, renewable energy portfolio and energy efficiency standards."

He added, "Out past 20 years, though, and the fruit is going to be higher up in the tree, and therefore, it may become more difficult to achieve deeper reductions."

Lashof sees no contradiction in the current patchwork of state and federal legislation that has already been implemented and the role of a future national carbon pricing mechanism.

"With what's happening in leading states, with clean air standards and market trends, we're definitely within striking distance of the 2020 targets," he said. But, he added, without a comprehensive federal climate change plan, meeting emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2050 becomes much more difficult to achieve.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500