Blog Post

U.S. Emissions Trends: Optimism, Pessimism, and One Big Decision

Feb 8, 2013 | Dallas Burtraw, Matthew Woerman

This week, the World Resources Institute released a report addressing U.S. progress on reducing GHG emissions to date, and the prospects for further progress without new legislation putting a price on carbon. The tone of the report is cautionary – it claims that ambitious “go-getter” policies are required to achieve the President’s Copenhagen target of 17% reductions in U.S. emissions by 2020 and that, therefore, the U.S. is "not currently on track to meet its 2020 reduction pledge". This appears to contrast with our recent research on the same question – as we wrote here last fall, we find that “the country is on course to achieve reductions of 16.3 percent”.

In fact, WRI’s results are really not so different from ours. Part of the question is how to count emissions reductions from policies already in place or “in the works,” like stricter fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and those arising from underlying economic trends. Here, there is almost no difference between our analysis and WRI’s.

The difference is their pessimism about the remaining 40% of reductions that has to occur by 2020 and, specifically, their views on Clean Air Act existing source performance standards for power plants. Our point is to say the runner is “on pace” at the 14th mile in a marathon but still has a way to go. What happens ultimately will depend on the existing source standards – and while both we and WRI’s team have been studying options for these standards for some time, nobody (at least outside of EPA) yet knows how strict they will actually be, or when they will be in place.

The second issue is WRI’s focus on all GHGs and not just combustion emissions. The president’s pledge was widely interpreted to be combustion fuels, but to be sure other gases are relevant. A third issue is WRI’s strong feeling there needs to be a price on carbon (we would not disagree) and this influences how they present their results. Finally, WRI is really focused beyond 2020 in this study, looking out to 2035.

But most importantly they do not think the existing source rules for power plants will be sufficiently stringent and may not be timely. That is a judgment call, neither right nor wrong. We believe that the decision on how to regulate existing sources (which is now on the President’s desk) is the most significant climate-related policy decision a president has ever faced. In different ways, the RFF and WRI analysis emphasize that status.