What, then, can the United States achieve, especially with a Congress that is reluctant to act?
The World Resources Institute just released a comprehensive analysis that finds that the Administration can achieve its 17 percent goal by 2020. But, it will take strong leadership and ambitious action.
Our analysis lays out four essential steps the administration can take:
First, the United States needs to produce energy more cleanly. Doing so is critical for the country's long-term human, environmental, and economic health. Coal-fired power production releases the largest portion of U.S. global warming pollution, roughly one-third of the total. The first step is for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to put in place standards for existing power plants and finalize regulations for new plants (announced last year). There are recent indications that the EPA is headed in this direction.
Second, the U.S. should tackle emissions outside the energy sector. For instance, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a common greenhouse gas released from air conditioners and refrigerators, are on the rise. The administration can make a dent in HFCs by working to amend the Montreal Protocol, the historic international agreement that saved the ozone layer. Meanwhile, the EPA should take steps to reduce domestic consumption of HFCs using its authority under the Clean Air Act.
Third, the United States needs to further rein in emissions associated with natural gas. While the natural gas boom has been good for cheap energy and job creation, it comes at a price. Methane, another potent greenhouse gas, can escape during the production process. The EPA set standards for air pollutants from natural gas systems in 2012, but much more is possible if the EPA tackles methane emissions head on. Fortunately, many technologies needed to cut methane emissions would pay for themselves in less than three years.
Fourth, the United States should take advantage of the easiest and quickest opportunity to reduce emissions: increasing energy efficiency. Improving national efficiency standards for equipment from industrial heaters to video game players would save money and cut millions of tons of carbon dioxide pollution. Delays in updated efficiency standards have been expensive, costing consumers and businesses $3.7 billion so far, according to new analysis by energy efficiency experts.
With these actions, the administration can reach the 2020 target. Doing so would send a strong signal that the U.S. is serious about climate change at home. Further, in meeting the goal, the U.S. would demonstrate global leadership, enhancing its credibility and building trust on the international stage.
There is some good news. The political winds on climate change are shifting. Opinion polls across the political spectrum show that more and more people understand that climate change is here. They understand that the impacts are taking a major toll people's lives and the economy.
Hurricane Sandy, which reignited a national conversation on climate change, will cost well over $60 billion to American taxpayers. Searing droughts across two-thirds of the country will cost up to 1 percent of U.S. GDP. The U.S. cattle herd in 2012 was at its lowest level in 61 years. Corn stocks are projected to plunge more than 27 percent in the coming year.
It's up to national leaders across federal agencies to put us on a better and safer course. This will not be easy. But, it is abundantly clear that the longer we wait, the harder - and more expensive - it will be.
As the president has said, future generations will judge us on our response to this pressing global issue. The State of the Union is the ideal platform for the president to let U.S. citizens - and the world - know how the Administration intends to respond.
Steer is president of the World Resources Institute.