The Final Fifth

Current regulations will achieve 80 percent of the country’s climate goal. Where will the rest come from?

Photo: Harry Pherson/Flickr

World leaders came out of Paris with an international climate agreement seeking to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The following is part of “What It Takes,” a series that looks into what we’ll need to do to pull that off.

The United States has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Here’s the good news: Already-adopted and almost-adopted policies should get us about four-fifths of the way there, even if we do nothing else. The Clean Power Plan alone will account for 10 of the 26 percentage points, and together, improved automotive fuel efficiency standards, methane regulations, and new hydrofluorocarbon rules add up to nearly the same contribution.

Now for the bad news: That last fifth will take some creativity. The Clean Power Plan may not have seemed like low-hanging fruit to the people who pushed it through Washington’s regulatory gauntlet, but putting our oldest, dirtiest power plants to the sword was an obvious step in cutting carbon pollution. The same goes for (finally) subjecting sport-utility vehicles to fuel economy standards.

So how will we reach our goal? Here are three suggestions.

Make Energy Efficiency a Win-Win

My wife and I bought a townhouse when we got married. We strongly considered installing rooftop solar panels while we lived there. They would have saved us thousands of dollars, especially with tax incentives. But then we moved and rented the place out. With tenants paying for utilities, our rooftop solar plans went out the window.

Economists say this is a problem of “misaligned incentives” or “split incentives.” Landlords don’t want to pay for something when they won’t reap the benefits. Sure, you might be able to squeeze a few extra rent dollars out of your tenants with a rooftop solar system, but it’s often difficult to fully recoup the investment. Tenants aren’t willing to pay above-market rates when they aren’t absolutely certain the electricity savings will cover the cost. And this doesn’t go just for solar. Attic insulation, new windows, smart thermostats—basically all energy efficiency improvements suffer from misaligned incentives in the rental market, which is huge, by the way, with rentals accounting for more than 43 million U.S. households.

The problem also affects commercial real estate. A survey by the New York City mayor’s office showed that misaligned incentives prevented 60 percent of commercial landlords from making energy efficiency upgrades.

There are lots of ways to address this problem. The government could strengthen incentives for landlords to upgrade energy efficiency or install green energy systems, since the market doesn’t properly provide them now. The government could also back loans with longer payback periods to help landlords manage the capital investment. In commercial transactions, where tenants are more apt to appreciate the value of energy savings, the solution could be even easier. Government-provided efficiency experts could estimate the future energy savings that would accrue to the tenant, which could then be spread out over the course of the lease and include a buffer to account for variations from the expected savings.

Whichever path we choose, we ought to do it immediately. This problem has undermined energy efficiency for far too long.

Address Air Travel (and Quickly)

A single round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits between two and three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. That’s more than 10 percent of the average American’s annual carbon footprint. The industry trend is even more worrying: By 2020, emissions from the aviation sector are likely to double.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans in June to regulate carbon pollution from airplanes. Unfortunately, the rules will take years to implement. To get a sense of how long these things can take, consider this: The Supreme Court ordered the EPA to regulate carbon pollution in 2007, but the Clean Power Plan, the first federal rule to do so, was not finalized until 2015. Aircraft-emissions regulations could take just as long, and the rules will almost certainly provide airlines and aircraft manufacturers additional years to comply. If the EPA doesn’t get moving now, the rules will take effect long after the 2025 deadline has passed.

Tackle Methane Emissions Everywhere

Last August, as part of President Obama’s expanding campaign against climate change, the EPA proposed rules for new oil and gas wells that would cut methane emissions by 20 to 30 percent. The agency also proposed regulations to reduce methane output from landfills, another significant source of the potent greenhouse gas.

Those important steps leave agriculture as the last untapped opportunity to take a major bite out of our methane emissions. Belching livestock, combined with animal waste, produce more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents every year, making them a larger emitter than landfills.

Unfortunately, finding a way to change this will be a major challenge. Sealing leaky wells and flaming off landfill methane are engineering problems. Preventing cow burps is a biological one. But there are green shoots of progress. Researchers are experimenting with changing the diet of the national herd, replacing corn with grasses like alfalfa. They are also considering more extreme solutions, such as manipulating cow genetics or tinkering with the bovine microbiome. (The bacteria in a cow’s stomach largely dictate its digestive behavior.)

* * *

We’re still waiting for that magic carbon-absorbing wand. Until it arrives, this is how emissions reductions will work. After we tighten the rules on large sources of greenhouse gases, we’ll need to move to ever-smaller sources until we reach our goal. But we have to move quickly. It’s only nine short years until 2025.


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