Turning Point: A Year of Action in the Fight Against Climate Change

2015 was hot. 2015 was also the year the world decided to beat the heat.

This year is on track to be the hottest on record world-wide. Temperatures will reach the 70s on Christmas day in the Nation's Capital.

But 2015 was also a year of action here in the United States and around the globe. The Clean Power Plan at home. The Paris Agreement abroad.

Kudos to President Obama, whose leadership actions here at home gave our country the credibility and leverage needed to reach the Paris Agreement. Next year can be a year of even more American leadership to protect our children, our communities, and our planet from the worst ravages of climate chaos.

Action at Home

The Obama administration took major climate actions here at home in 2015 - actions that were critical to the America's international leverage:

The Clean Power Plan: Completed by the Environmental Protection Agency in August, the Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution from our power plants - the nation's biggest emitters - by nearly a third by 2030 from 2005 levels. It will accelerate the shift from the old and dirty power system of the past to a clean energy future driven by economical wind and solar power and energy efficiency. Despite the usual flurry of lawsuits, nearly every state is working on its own plan to meet the Plan's carbon reduction targets.

Trucks, Planes, and Cars: EPA and the Transportation Department proposed carbon pollution and fuel economy standards in June for heavy-duty vehicles - big rigs, buses, and other trucks -that will cut emissions through the 2020s while saving fuel and money. Also in June, EPA found that aircraft carbon pollution endangers public health and welfare; that sets us on a pathway to clean up the airline fleet. Next year, EPA and DOT will review technological progress in curbing the carbon pollution of cars and light trucks, which could lead to stronger standards in the next decade.

Super-Pollutant HFCs: EPA issued SNAP rules in July that have started the shift away from the super-potent chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs pack thousands of times the heat-trapping wallop of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. The "Significant New Alternatives Program" rules set clear deadlines for replacing them with climate-friendlier alternatives in auto air conditioners and other key uses. Next year EPA will issue a second set of SNAP rules to hasten HFC replacement in more categories of equipment. And with President Obama's support, EPA and the State Department will work to reach a global HFC phase-down agreement in 2016 under the Montreal Protocol.

Methane Leakage: Millions of tons of methane leak from equipment throughout the oil and gas sector. Methane has 36-87 times the heat-trapping punch of CO2 (depending on the timeframe). In January the administration set a 40-45 percent methane reduction goal for 2025. EPA proposed standards in August to curb methane leakage from new oil and gas sources, as well as for landfills. Meeting the 40-45 percent methane reduction goal will require setting standards for leakage from existing oil and gas equipment too. That's one of our highest priorities for 2016.

Greater Energy Efficiency: Just last week the Energy Department adopted energy efficiency standards for commercial rooftop air conditioners, heat pumps, and warm air furnaces that together will save more energy and avoid more pollution than any other energy-saving rule in the agency's history. The new standards add to ones issued in July and September for other categories of commercial air conditioning equipment and heat pumps. Collectively, DOE's efficiency standards issued during the Obama administration will save more than 2.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions through 2030, with more action to come in 2016.

Cleaner Energy Supply: 2015 was a watershed year for aligning our nation's long term energy supply decisions with our climate goals. We saw continued cost reductions and rapid growth in renewable energy, including wind power and central and distributed solar power - greater potential that is reflected in the final Clean Power Plan. President Obama rejected the Keystone Tar Sands pipeline saying it "would not serve the national interest of the United States," and, "we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground." The president also declined to renew existing oil leases in the Arctic's pristine Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, laying the foundation for further protection of our unique ocean waters.

Action Abroad

The Paris Agreement, adopted to thunderous applause earlier this month, is a true turning point in the fight against climate change. It galvanizes action by all the world's biggest polluters - China and the U.S., Europe and India, and all other major emitters. It includes pollution-cutting commitments from 187 nations. It includes unprecedented transparency provisions, and it commits nations to upping their game every five years.

The Paris Agreement puts us on a path to avoid truly catastrophic temperature increases and climate impacts, though we will have to do much more to meet the Agreement's goal of preventing more than a 1.5 degrees Celsius heat-up.

President Obama's Climate Action Plan was the key to converting the United States from obstacle to catalyst. U.S. participation is essential to any successful global effort. Every country needs to know that if they act, America will act. For decades, our country's commitment has been in doubt. But by demonstrating action under the Clean Air Act and energy laws already on the books, the president established our country's credibility and gained crucial leverage.

These domestic actions built the confidence that led China and U.S. to jointly announce their commitments for Paris more than a year ago, in November 2014. That joint announcement led to the wave of national commitments put forward over the following year - more than 160 national commitments by the start of the Paris conference, rising to 187 by the end. Our action at home, and the intensive U.S. diplomacy led by Secretary of State John Kerry and other cabinet secretaries, created unprecedented momentum as the December climate negotiations approached. President Obama leaned in on climate throughout the year in summits, state visits, and leader-to-leader phone calls. The president joined 150 other world leaders to raise expectations and send clear signals to their ministers at the start of the Paris talks, and he worked the phones through the meeting to seal the deal.

The international beat will go on in 2016. This past November, the administration sent a top-tier delegation to Montreal Protocol talks in Dubai, including EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and senior White House representation. The U.S. team won agreement to accelerate negotiations next year, setting the stage to seal an HFC phase-down deal in 2016.

And What of Congress?

All this progress was made no thanks to those who control our Congress. No other major country has a powerful political party led by climate deniers. Senate and House leaders tried everything to block progress, but to no avail. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote all 50 governors, urging them to "just say no" to the Clean Power Plan, but nearly every state is working on an implementation plan. Conducting his own foreign policy, McConnell lobbied other countries not to deal in Paris because the U.S. couldn't be trusted, but other countries chose to bet that we can and will follow through on the president's commitments. Republican leaders passed a bill to repeal the Clean Power Plan (called a "resolution of disapproval"), only to see it vetoed last Friday by President Obama. That's the end of it, because neither chamber of Congress has the votes to override.

But occasionally this year, despite itself, Congress even helped. Two Senate Republicans joined Democrats in a crucial committee vote last summer blocking legislation that would have kept our country from contributing to the Green Climate Fund, an international fund to help the poorest countries curb their emissions and avoid or recover from climate disasters. In the year-end omnibus appropriations and tax legislation, Congress allowed the GCF funding to go forward. And "riders" intended to block the president's climate actions all were dropped from the final funding bill. Congress even extended tax incentives for wind and solar energy - reinforcing, rather than undercutting, the Clean Power Plan.

2016 - Can You Top This?

President Obama has the opportunity and, by all signs, the intention to do even more to protect our climate in his final year. Look for the President to take more action both at home and abroad, implementing and expanding the Climate Action Plan and following through on the Paris Agreement.

2016 promises to be another year of action.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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