Obama Vows to Finalize Carbon Standards, Other Safeguards in Climate Change Plan

Earth from space

In a press conference on June 25, President Obama revealed his plan to address climate change. Delivering on a promise he made nearly four months ago during his State of the Union address, the president said that if Congress failed to protect future generations from the impacts of climate change, he would.

His action plan focuses on three core measures – reducing domestic carbon pollution, preparing for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to address the problem – to keep the U.S. on track for reaching established carbon reduction targets.

The president's plan builds upon climate-based initiatives that were set in motion soon after he began his first term in office. In 2009, at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen, Denmark, President Obama committed to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. So far, the administration has succeeded in limiting GHGs emitted from cars and trucks, establishing fuel economy standards, and setting minimum efficiency standards for household appliances, placing the U.S. ahead of schedule for meeting its 2020 target.

Cutting Domestic Carbon Pollution

President Obama's climate plan outlines a host of measures that the U.S. must take to reduce domestic carbon pollution. Most significantly, Obama directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize standards limiting GHG emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide released into the air.

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2011
GHG Emissions by Sector
Source: EPA

Under the plan, EPA must complete a proposed rule for new power plants by Sept. 20, 2013. (EPA first proposed such a rule in March 2012, but it has been stalled.) The final rule must be published within a reasonable time, although no deadline is set. EPA has until June 1, 2014, to propose limits on emissions from existing power plants and must finalize the rule by June 1, 2015. EPA must submit both rules to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review, an office often criticized for lengthy delays. It will be up to the president and the newly appointed OIRA administrator, Howard Shelanski, to ensure that the rules move promptly through the review process.

Together, these carbon-reduction measures will help reduce air pollutants that harm the health of our families and children. Taking bold measures to protect the public and environment can also bolster the economy and help small businesses. According to a poll by Small Business Majority, 57 percent of small business owners believe that climate change poses an imminent risk to the economy and could harm small businesses. And a recent poll conducted by the American Sustainable Business Council shows that 63 percent of small business owners support rules that limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

The president's plan also calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by issuing stringent fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles after 2018; model years 2014-2018 are subject to the fuel economy standards finalized in 2011. Combined with energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, these actions will generate hundreds of billions in cost savings for Americans, both on their utility bills and at the gas pump.

Additional measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved by phasing out hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) and reducing methane emissions from industry and agriculture. Although these pollutants make up a small fraction of total greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide, short-lived pollutants like HFCs and methane are much more potent than other greenhouse gases.

Despite the substantial benefits to the public these rules will provide, industry groups have pledged to file suit against EPA if it issues any rules limiting emissions from existing power plants, which could delay the rules for several years while they are held up in court. Some members of Congress have already indicated that Gina McCarthy's nomination to serve as administrator of EPA will be delayed if the agency moves forward with the standards Obama outlined in his plan. Congress also can attempt to delay agency action by initiating lengthy investigations or using the appropriations power to limit or deny resources to the agency.

Preparing for Impacts of Climate Change

The president's plan also includes actions that states and local communities must take to prepare for the impacts of climate change and the rising costs of damages. In 2012, 11 weather disasters resulted in damages exceeding $100 billion, making it the second most expensive year ever recorded in the United States. The costs of damages from severe weather events will continue to rise, and the president's plan includes working with state and local governments and businesses to increase investments in protective infrastructure.

To spur investment, agencies will work to reduce barriers to federal assistance for climate-resilient projects. Additionally, governments, businesses, and communities will work together to assess the impacts of climate change on existing infrastructure and develop creative strategies to manage climate risks. Such actions will help protect our homes, businesses, and livelihoods from severe droughts, wildfires, flooding, and damaging winds.

Leading International Efforts to Address Global Climate Change

Finally, the Obama administration will work with leaders around the world to promote the development of a global market for natural gas and continued use of nuclear power. Such actions are unlikely to receive support from environmental groups opposed to expanding natural gas development domestically or abroad. Air and water resources are already threatened by natural gas operations, and the plan does not spell out any immediate measures to issue needed protections before expanding natural gas activities.

President Obama also calls for the United States to end subsidies for fossil fuel development, as well as to stop financing new coal plants located abroad, with certain exceptions where it is not economically or technologically feasible to produce energy from another source, such as in the poorest nations. He expects to work with U.S. trading partners to initiate negotiations at the World Trade Organization to promote global free trade in environmental goods and services and cleaner energy technologies. The United States will join negotiations at the upcoming climate conference in 2015 to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond the initial targets set for 2020. But, while President Obama can play a key role in developing an agreement, only Congress has the power to ratify any treaty that Obama signs.


President Obama's climate action plan is an important and necessary step forward for the United States. His plan includes key measures to reduce carbon pollution, prepare for climate impacts, and work with partners around the world to formulate solutions to this global threat. Yet as Obama has stated, "There is no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change." Climate change is an ongoing problem, and the United States will need to continue working to craft new, creative solutions that help build and preserve a clean environment and thriving economy for each future generation.

For a short, graphical overview of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, click here.

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