Lost year for federal climate action? Not quite

Most people would say that the federal government has not been very productive in 2013. Pundits are pointing out, with despair tinged with perhaps a bit of relish, that Congress only passed 58 noteworthy bills this year, the lowest number of laws passed in a year since 1947. This inaction is perhaps most glaring when it comes to addressing climate change, one of the more pressing, and intractable, issues of our time. Numerous bills that would reduce our carbon emissions, by promoting energy efficiency and renewables, were introduced into Congress in 2013, including the Shaheen-Portman bill, the Farm bill (which has a rural energy component), and bills to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency tax incentives. Very little has passed.

Has 2013 therefore been a lost year when it comes to federal climate action? Not quite. The administration has made the fight against climate change one of its top priorities. In June, President Obama unveiled his National Climate Action Plan, which sets the country on a path to double its energy efficiency and reduce its carbon emissions by 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020. The Plan also includes adaptation and resiliency measures, to help prepare communities for the climate change impacts that are already taking place.

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Planning has been followed by concrete action. In September, the EPA proposed rules that would restrict carbon pollution from new power plants (power plants are America's largest source of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 40 percent of its emissions). Similar rules for existing power plants are expected in mid-2014. In December, the USDA launched the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, which provides federal loans to support energy efficiency and renewable energy programs operated by rural electric cooperatives and utilities. And, in December, federal agencies were tasked with acquiring at least 20 percent of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2020.

Also in December, the White House announced it was extending and expanding its Energy Savings Performance Contracting program. The program has been an unalloyed success, making federal buildings, military bases and laboratories more energy efficient by leveraging private sector financing and expertise. The Department of Energy estimates that, between 2009 and 2011, $1.2 billion in private investment was leveraged to save more than $3.5 billion in electricity and water costs. The program continues to benefit from strong bipartisan and industry support.

The administration also made progress on the international stage. In June, China and the United States agreed to reduce the use of HFCs, which are highly potent greenhouse gases, and in July, they agreed to expand their joint efforts against climate change by promoting energy efficiency, smart grids, cleaner vehicles, and carbon capture technology.

Congress did not remain completely on the sidelines. The Farm Bill, with its key energy components, is expected to pass this January. And, interestingly, two of the few pieces of legislation that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2013 were designed to promote hydropower—a clean, baseload source of energy. TheHydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 267) and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act both received unanimous support in the Senate; H.R. 267 was passed unanimously in the House, a rare achievement. 

Unfortunately, we're not out of the woods by a long shot. The year 2013 saw two major climate change milestones. In May, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in at least 3 million years, up from 315 PPM in 1958, when the first reliable measurements were made. This is bad news, as higher concentrations of carbon dioxide result in more global warming. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's leading authority on global warming, concluded that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." In other words, it's definitely becoming warmer, and humans are to blame.

When releasing their comprehensive report, the IPCC's 259 climate scientists warned that without "substantial and sustained" reductions in our carbon emissions, we will experience more—and more pronounced—heat waves, droughts, and other extreme weather, as well as sea level rises.

Let us hope, therefore, that 2014 sees strong, sustained federal climate action by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. 

Werner is the executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).