Can the U.S. meet its greenhouse gas targets?

How Obama’s new environmental rules are reshaping the debate
CUSHING, OK - MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

How close is the United States to meeting its Copenhagen climate target now?

Before the Obama administration released the details of its new greenhouse-gas emissions rule for power plants yesterday, economist Andrew Leach and I wrote that muscular action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could put the U.S. on a credible path to reaching its international emissions target. Both Canada and the U.S. are committed to reducing national emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord. We also wrote that, although Canada had already moved on regulating coal-fired power plant emissions, reaching the Copenhagen target remains more difficult and more expensive for Canada, because Canadian emissions are driven much less by coal and more by oil and gas production. Although Ottawa has said it will introduce emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector, it has not done so yet.

Now that the EPA has put out its new rule, how much closer is the U.S. to meeting its Copenhagen target?

In a nutshell, it is much closer, but not all the way there yet. However, the Obama administration has outlined a plan for how it can close most of the gap.

By 2012, overall U.S. emissions had fallen a little more than 10 per cent from 2005 levels—in part due to policy changes (such as stricter emissions standards for vehicles), reduced U.S. industrial production, efficiency improvements and market-driven fuel switching from coal to lower-emission natural gas. This meant U.S. had already cut 743 million tons out of its Copenhagen goal of 1,233 million tons.

With the new power plant policy, the EPA projects power-sector emissions will fall by 25 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020—about 240 million tons. (There are no guarantees. The rule leaves some wiggle room for states to phase in the reductions as long as cuts average to 25 per cent over the 2020s.) If the EPA’s projections come true, the U.S. will be on track to a 13.5 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020—with another 248 million tons to cut to reach the 17 per cent goal.

Can the U.S. get there? “We should have a good shot at meeting our 2020 target, if the administration continues to follow through with the president’s Climate Action Plan,” said Kyle Aarons of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

How can the U.S. cut the remaining 3.5 per cent? Aarons says the EPA is working on a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide. One goal is to capture leaking, or “fugitive,” methane emissions from coal mining and natural gas production.  That could result in reductions of up to 90 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent in emissions. (Methane is more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.) Second, the Obama administration plans to reduce emissions of hydro-fluorocarbons, or HFCs, chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning. That could cut 135 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent of emissions. Those two measures will close most of the remaining gap. Other policies, such as land use and energy-efficiency measures, could push the U.S. to the finish line.

Where does that leave carbon-dioxide emissions from oil and gas production? This is the area that is a large and growing source of emissions in Canada. The federal government has suggested it may wait to coordinate policies with Washington. But there is no sign that Washington is planning to tackle them any time soon. (The EPA did look at regulating refineries a few years ago, but did not pursue that option.)

In theory, the EPA could seek to regulate carbon emissions from oil and gas production or refining under the same statute, the 1970 Clean Air Act, that it is using to regulate the power plants. However, it has not signalled any imminent plans to do so. Some congressional Republicans have already warned they will attempt to roll back the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through new legislation, and court challenges to the new power plant rule are widely expected. Whether the EPA moves on to regulate emissions from other sectors may depend on how the court cases turn out, speculates Aarons. “If the courts uphold the EPA’s authority, then the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to address every sector,” he said. But that is likely years away. And the presidential election of 2016 will also a play a role in how aggressively the next administration will pursue additional emissions reductions—or not.

If the Obama administration succeeds in its plans on power plants, methane, and HFCs, it will have already gone a long way to closing the gap.