Cutting Carbon Pollution: The World is Watching Us

World Cup fever is starting to take hold in the United States, grabbing public attention with the same urgency that it does in the rest of the world. It reminds me of another global event that’s also attained new levels of attention in the United States—climate change.

Just as more American kids today are growing up playing soccer, they’re also growing up in a world where climate change is a reality, living through the extreme weather that is its hallmark. This generation of Americans is also starting to see what it takes to stop the damage: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its intention earlier this month to set the first-ever national limits on climate-altering carbon pollution from existing power plants.

The EPA’s seminal announcement could spark a change not just in the United States, but around the world. Because when the United States moves to set strong limits on carbon pollution, it sends a clear signal to other nations. Momentum is shifting in the fight to save the global climate—and it’s time for everyone to get behind the ball.

On Wednesday night I attended a dinner event with President Obama, where he reiterated his commitment to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. We were all celebrating the first anniversary of the announcement of his historic Climate Action Plan, which includes power plant standards as well as many other important climate measures.

The Obama administration knows that cutting harmful carbon pollution will help clean the air and protect communities from costly and destructive storms, floods, and droughts. And a host of economic studies demonstrate that carbon-cutting tools such as clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency are engines of job growth that can lift the economy.

But the path America takes to cut carbon pollution is not merely a domestic issue. It can have a profound impact worldwide. Carbon pollution from U.S. power plants is nearly the equivalent of the entire carbon output of India, the world’s fourth largest contributor to climate pollution, and more than Brazil. Cutting America’s biggest source of carbon pollution takes a bite out of global climate pollution--and it also sets an example for other nations to follow.

While the world has been waiting for the United States to get into the game, it hasn’t exactly been standing still. India, for example, doubled its solar energy capacity in the last year, and is contemplating making its energy-efficient building code mandatory for all states, a move that would cut 17 power-plants-worth of carbon emissions, and lock in carbon and cost savings for years to come. 

China invested $54 billion in clean energy in 2013, more than all of Europe combined, outpacing U.S. clean energy investment by 33 percent. China has cut its carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) every year for the past nine years, with a goal of reducing it 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. China is also considering a cap on coal consumption. 

NRDC has been working in China for years to help accelerate its shift to clean energy, including finding ways to enhance public participation in environmental issues. Domestic public outcry in recent years over pervasive air pollution has helped prompt the Chinese government to dramatically ramp up clean energy, cut energy demand and take serious steps to wean the country off coal.

Public engagement on climate action is critical to the climate fight everywhere. In the United States, public concerns about extreme weather, worsening asthma, fracking and the risks of transporting dirty fuels could coalesce in September, when world leaders, including President Obama, are expected to gather for a special climate summit at the United Nations in New York. Prior to the summit, NRDC, our allies and thousands of people from around the world will rally in the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March, calling for real international action to address the climate crisis.

Between now and the 2015 Paris climate talks, where nations of the world are expected to agree on the next phase of global climate commitments, the United States has a singular opportunity to translate its domestic momentum on climate change into global climate action.

No single nation can stop climate change. But no nation faces the fight alone. All over the world, people are standing up for cleaner energy, businesses and industries are reducing pollution through cost-effective energy efficiency, and governments are promoting solutions that will cut carbon and protect health while strengthening economies.

Now is the time to scale up these efforts, strengthen and deliver on existing commitments to cut carbon, and expand cooperation between nations as we all work toward our common goal: to stabilize the climate and protect people all over the world from the most devastating effects of climate change.