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Report Lays Out Five Ways the U.S. Can Cut Emissions While Boosting the Economy

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Florida coal plant (Photograph by Mikolai Hurski/National Geographic Your Shot)

Cutting the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that stoke climate change could save billions in energy costs and boost revenue for the natural gas industry, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute, a research organization that advocates for environmental sustainability.

The report, Seeing Is Believing, focuses on five areas that account for 55 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “In each case, we found that reducing emissions can yield significant economic benefits even before you factor in the advantages of avoiding drought, sea level rise, and other climate change impacts,” the report’s authors wrote in a blog post introducing the study.

The five actions WRI recommends are:

Lowering the carbon intensity of electric power. Cutting emissions from the nation’s power sector is the chief aim of proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, announced in June. The EPA wants to reduce emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels in the next 15 years. Opponents of the rules claim they will raise electric bills and kill jobs. The WRI report points out that natural gas-fired generation is cheaper and cleaner than coal, and that costs for solar are dropping, making it possible to produce more clean energy for less. But it acknowledges via its recommendations that renewable energy still faces policy and grid hurdles. Aside from supporting the EPA rules, the report argues for more long-term utility contracts for clean energy and a more stable tax-credit system.

Saving more electricity. Energy efficiency would seem to be a no-brainer that has bipartisan support, but other energy battles in Congress have sidelined efforts to get a federal efficiency bill passed. Still, other measures are already paying off, says WRI, noting that from 2009 through 2030, federal standards for appliances such as air conditioners and heat pumps  will save consumers an estimated $450 billion on electric bills. The report argues for strengthening and expanding those standards, along with bolstering measures at the state level.

Boosting cleaner, more efficient vehicles. Just this week, the EPA touted all-time highs in fuel economy for American cars. Even as conventional cars get more miles for the gallon than ever before, adoption of hybrid and all-electric vehicles is growing too. And now automakers including Toyota and Hyundai are readying the rollout of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. But electric and hybrid cars still make up less than 5 percent of all passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. The WRI report argues for an expansion of alternative fueling infrastructure and more federal and state incentives to promote sales.

Improving the natural gas industry. The fracking boom and ensuing abundance of natural gas has contributed to a move away from coal in the power sector, a trend likely to continue when the EPA’s power plant rules, which explicitly encourage the transition to natural gas, go into effect. While some researchers have questioned the long-term emissions benefit of increased natural gas use, it seems undeniable that it makes sense from an emissions standpoint to address methane leaks that are occurring at existing production and transmission facilities. We don’t know exactly how much methane is leaking: the EPA “estimates that the natural gas system’s methane leakage rate was about 1.2 percent in 2012,” the report says, “but many recent studies suggest that it may be much greater, perhaps in the range of 3 percent to as high as 10 percent.” Plugging those leaks could boost revenues for producers, WRI argues, and boost the emissions benefit that natural gas can offer over coal.

Cut down on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration are a small but very potent component of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, capable of trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide, according to WRI. Last month ahead of Climate Week in New York, the Obama administration announced that it had secured commitments from companies including Coca-Cola, Target, and Honeywell to reduce their use of HFCs, along with new executive actions aimed at promoting alternatives to HFCs and reducing their use in federal buildings. The WRI report says such efforts should continue, and that the U.S. can achieve a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 without raising costs.

The U.S. has already lowered its emissions by 10 percent between 2005 and 2013 while growing its gross domestic product by 11 percent, the WRI report said. But U.S. emissions actually went up slightly between 2012 and 2013, and there are now just about five years left for the United States to get the rest of the way toward its international commitment of a 17 percent reduction by 2020. What do you think: Will the U.S. hit the target? How important will these actions be in getting there?