Obama Needs to Step Up Climate Change Plan

Only a great leap forward can succeed against this critical issue

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It took a super-storm, record-breaking heat, rampant wildfires and increasingly dire predictions for the planet, but four-and-a-half years into his tenure, President Obama issued a plan to combat climate change. It’s an important step forward – but, frankly, we need a leap.

Announced on June 25, the president’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) has three aims: cut domestic carbon pollution; prepare the country to face the now-unavoidable impacts of climate change; and enhance U.S. leadership in international negotiations to reduce global carbon pollution. Broadly, these are the right aims, but the details, which have not been disclosed yet, will determine the extent of CAP’s positive impact.

The centerpiece of CAP’s strategy to cut domestic carbon pollution centers on coal-fired power plants, the very worst bad actors when it comes to carbon pollution that is driving climate change. Within two years, the president has committed to set first-ever carbon pollution limits for power plants, which are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions.

The question is whether those limits will be strong enough. Telling a pack-a-day smoker with a high cancer risk to cut back by one cigarette per day isn’t going to do much good; similarly, the limits on power plant carbon pollution have to be strong to make a difference.

The rest of CAP’s strategy to cut domestic carbon pollution has some room for improvement. It takes an overly soft approach to reducing emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is shorter lived but 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. CAP favors data collection and vague incentives for industry rather than clear emissions limits that would reliably secure needed carbon reductions.

Another weakness of the plan is its failure to address carbon emissions from oil refineries, shipping and aviation—three major contributors to climate change. The plan also fails to set requirements for utilities to feed renewable energy into the electricity grid, a critical tool to speed up the replacement of dirty energy with cleaner power.

Modern transmission systems must be able to handle the needs of renewable energy. (Warren Gretz / NREL)

Earthjustice will push for stronger programs within CAP to take on these problems, but in the meantime we’re also tackling the problems head-on. Our attorneys have for years been pursuing methane reductions from oil and gas operations, coal mines, landfills and other major sources, and will redouble efforts to control methane emissions regardless of what actions the CAP’s multi-agency task force on methane eventually recommends.

We are also involved in legal advocacy to promote electricity transmission projects that use renewable energy and to stop transmission projects that perpetuate the use of dirty fossil fuels. We’re working nationally and internationally to cut carbon emissions from oil refineries, shipping and aviation as well.

Another major component of the president’s plan is to reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 through energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings. Earthjustice lawyers have been pressuring the Department of Energy for years to significantly improve energy efficiency for appliances. Some of our recent successes include stronger standards for electricity distribution transformers and microwave ovens, but we have much more to do. Currently, we are pressing for strong standards for electric motors standards, residential furnace fans and walk-in coolers and freezers. Those three standards could replace the energy produced by more than eight power plants annually.

CAP’s other two pillars—preparing the nation for climate change and working internationally to reduce carbon pollution—are both critically important.

We’ll be working to strengthen the president’s plan by encouraging the government to pay closer attention to the resilience of our forest and water resources. On the international front, we’re working to ensure that the president’s plan includes policy on coal exports to China, a dangerous proposition that we’re currently fighting. Ultimately, our best bargaining chip in international negotiations will be strong reductions in carbon pollution from coal plants—CAP’s centerpiece.

A priority for Earthjustice is making sure the president gets this part of the plan right. One concern regarding the international piece is the promotion of a global market for natural gas. From our domestic experience fighting fracking on private and public lands we know that gas comes at the high price of polluted air and water and industrialized landscapes for communities adjacent to the gas fields. In terms of climate change, we know that leakage occurring throughout gas production and transport significantly undermines the industry’s clean fuel claims.

Our elected leaders cannot ignore climate change any longer. We’re encouraged by the level of attention the president is giving climate change and by what he has proposed to do in broad strokes. The most important thing in the months and years ahead is ensuring that the change made by the administration is real.

The goal of Earthjustice is to use our decades of legal expertise to make certain that this Climate Action Plan makes a significant impact on the greatest global issue of our time.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”