Reducing the Threat of Climate Change in the U.S.: A Survey of Activities

1. Federal/Congressional Legislation
2. Regional Activities
3. State Level Programs and Policies
4. City and Community Efforts and Commitments
5. Corporate Targets and Achievements
6. Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Reduce the Threat of Climate Change?

1. Federal/Congressional Legislation:
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McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 – In October 2003, the U.S. Senate had an historic vote on a bill to cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and establish a national trading system. In a trading system, industries or utilities that emit more than their allotted amount can purchase emissions credits from those who exceed their reductions requirements, as utilities now do with sulfur emissions from power plants. The bill calls for an overall reduction in U.S. emissions to 2000 emissions levels by 2010; thereafter, emissions levels would be held constant. The bill lost by a vote of 55 to 43, but Senator McCain has vowed to continue pushing this legislation until the Senate passes it.

Gilchrest-Olver Climate Stewardship Act of 2004 – In March 2004, 20 members of the House (10 Republicans and 10 Democrats) introduced a bill that echoes language of the McCain-Lieberman bill. It would require U.S. industries to reduce emissions of six primary GHGs to 2000 levels by 2010.

2. Regional Activities:
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In the United States, laws to address climate change—such as mandated emissions reductions or policies to promote renewable energy—are easier to pass at the state and local levels than at the federal level, where powerful coal, oil, and auto industry lobbies continue to fight such laws. In the absence of Federal laws or regulations, states, communities, and businesses are leading the way to address climate change. Several noteworthy efforts are listed below:

California, Oregon, and Washington – In 2003, the governors of these states directed their staffs to draft recommendations on ways to collaborate regionally in reducing emissions in several sectors of their economies—including by using more efficient vehicles, increasing the share of renewables in electricity generation, and creating emissions accounting systems and inventories.

New England and Canada’s Eastern Provinces – In 2001, governors of New England states and premiers of Canada’s Eastern provinces approved a comprehensive regional Climate Action Plan that aims to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2010.

11 Northeastern States – In spring 2003, Governor Pataki of New York invited the governors of 10 other states to participate in the development of a regional program to cap and trade CO2 emissions. Program design for this Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is expected to be complete by April 2005.

Pressing for Federal Regulations – In July 2002, the attorneys general of 11 states (Alaska, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) sent a letter to the Bush Administration pressing for strong federal measures to limit U.S. national GHG emissions.

3. State Level Programs and Policies:
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Twenty-eight states have created, or are currently preparing, programs or strategies to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, and several have enacted legislation that mandates reductions. During 2003 alone, at least 24 states introduced 90 bills to build frameworks to regulate GHG emissions.

Renewable Energy Laws – One-quarter of all U.S. states have enacted Renewables Portfolio Standards (RPS), which mandate an increase in the states’ share of electricity generated with renewable energy.

Renewable Energy Funds – About half of all U.S. states have established renewable energy funds to provide subsidies for installation of renewable energy projects, or for the production of renewable electricity, for energy efficiency projects, and for energy education and awareness programs.

Specific State Activities Include:

  • New Jersey has committed to reducing state GHG emissions to 3.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2005. It plans to reach this goal through a combination of increasing renewable energy use, agreements with companies and organizations, and mandatory reporting of GHG emissions.
  • California adopted legislation in 2002 that requires the California Air Resources Board to adopt emissions standards for cars and light-trucks/SUVs in California. Application of standards is to begin in 2009.
  • Massachusetts capped emissions of CO2 in 2001 from its six highest-emitting power plants, which represent 40 percent of the state’s electricity.
  • New Hampshire passed legislation in 2002 to reduce emissions of CO2, SO2 and NOx from power plants. The law requires that CO2 emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2006.
  • Oregon has required since 1997 that new power plants offset 17 percent of their CO2 emissions. This can be done through improvements in energy efficiency of buildings, investments in renewable energy, reforestation, and other types of projects that result in emissions reductions or carbon sequestration.

4. City and Community Efforts and Commitments:
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U.S. Mayors – In October 2003, 155 mayors, representing more than 46 million people, issued a statement calling on the Federal government to join them in efforts to reduce the threat of climate change. (See The statement notes that “Global warming poses significant threats to communities across the country. We are already feeling impacts in the form of heat waves, shrinking water supplies and snow pack, increased rates of asthma, floods and storms, and coastal erosion…. This issue [of climate change] requires an effective response from the U.S. Federal Government.” The statement also notes the economic, health and security benefits of reducing emissions through conservation, efficiency, and the use of cleaner, more sustainable technologies. Signatories include mayors of Atlanta, Boston, Boulder, Dallas, Honolulu, Houston, Louisville, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Newark, New Haven, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Cities for Climate Protection – 249 cities in North America (most in the U.S.) have joined Cities for Climate Protection, a program of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives that commits them to inventory and create detailed action plans for reducing their GHG emissions. As of April 2004, 579 cities worldwide had joined this effort.

San Francisco, CA – City voters approved a $100 million bond initiative in 2001 to pay for solar panels for municipal buildings.

Burlington, VT – Has challenged its residents to reduce their household CO2 emissions by 10 percent.

University of North Carolina – A large majority of students voted in early 2003 to increase tuition by $4 per semester to raise money for the promotion and use of renewable energy on campus.

Tufts University, MA – Has committed to meeting or beating the U.S. Kyoto Protocol target of a 7 percent reduction (below 1990 levels) in the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.

University of California campuses and the Los Angeles Community College District - Have committed to reducing energy use, purchasing green power, and installing solar photovoltaics on campus buildings to reduce GHG emissions as the result of a student-led campaign.

Episcopal Power and Light – The General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution in 1997 calling on members to practice energy efficiency in response to concerns about climate change. Leaders in the Church established Episcopal Power and Light to combine the purchasing power of churches and their congregations to buy green power. The aim was to unite communities, empower congregations, and build bridges among different religions with the goal of reducing the threat of climate change. The U.S. National Council of Churches (with about 340,000 congregations) and the World Council of Churches are developing similar programs.

5. Corporate Targets and Achievements:
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Dupont – Has already achieved its target of reducing GHG emissions 65 percent below 1990 levels; the original target date was 2010. Dupont plans to derive 10 percent of the energy it uses worldwide from renewable sources by 2010.

Silicon Valley – Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Calpine, Lockheed, ALZA, Life Scan, and PG&E announced in March 2004 a plan to reduce CO2 emissions in Santa Clara County, California, to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. This is triple the goal that the Kyoto Protocol set for the United States as a whole (a 7 percent reduction below total U.S. 1990 emissions levels by 2012). Companies plan to curb their emissions by retrofitting buildings with more efficient heating and cooling systems and insulation; shifting auto fleets to hybrid vehicles; replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs; and installing motion detectors. They expect all of these changes to be cost-effective. The city of San Jose will also take part, improving public transportation, enacting more energy efficient building codes, and converting its vehicle fleet to hybrids.

Alcoa – Has committed to reducing its GHG emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

Bank of America – In May 2004, the corporation announced unprecedented targets and timetables for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, with an initial goal to reduce emissions 7 percent by 2008, and pledged to stop funding projects that involve oil and gas exploration, among other things.

Power Companies – Five U.S. power companies committed in early 2004 to reducing their GHG emissions and to supporting a mandatory federal cap on CO2 emissions. As part of the PowerSwitch Challenge initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, Austin Energy (Texas), Burlington Electric Department (Vermont), FPL Group (Florida), Sacramento Municipal Utility District (California), and Waverly Light and Power (Iowa) have committed to undertaking at least one of the following by 2020: increasing the share of electricity they sell that is generated by renewables to 20 percent; increasing energy efficiency by 15 percent; and/or retiring the least-efficient half of their coal generating capacity.

Shaw’s Supermarket – Now sells renewable electricity in several New England cities, and at least 3 of its stores are purchasing renewable energy to meet 25 percent of their electricity needs. Shaw’s was the first supermarket chain in New England to offer green power to its customers. The renewable energy is generated on the rooftops of BJ’s Wholesale Club stores.

Green Power – An estimated 10,000 U.S. businesses (and 110,000 households) are now using certified “green” electricity that is generated with renewable resources.

6. Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Reduce the Threat of Climate Change?:
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While states, businesses, communities, the non-profit sector, and other groups are doing more and more in the United States to address climate change, many charge that the U.S. is failing to do enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the national level. Indeed, despite the many activities and commitments to reduce emissions around the country—including those listed above—cumulative U.S. efforts fall short of steps being taken today in the European Union, Japan, Canada, and several other countries around the world. The United States can and must do more.

In 1992, it looked as if the United States was on track to take an active role in reducing global emissions. At this time, most of the world’s nations agreed that a changing global climate and its impacts are a “common concern of humanity” and that human activities are contributing to global warming. The international community adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous human interference with the climate system, and does so within a period that (1) allows ecosystems to adapt naturally, and (2) ensures that economic development can proceed in a sustainable manner and that (3) ensures that food production is not threatened. The first President Bush signed the Convention into U.S. law.

Signatories of the Convention agreed that all parties should take action on the basis of equity and in accordance with “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” and that industrial countries must lead the global community in addressing climate change and must take immediate action. In addition, industrial countries committed to adopting national or multinational policies to limit greenhouse emissions, with the aim of returning their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The Kyoto Protocol grew out of the Convention process, and was signed by Vice President Gore in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. However, President G. W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Protocol in early 2001. If the U.S. were still party to Kyoto, after the treaty’s entry into force the country would be committed to reducing its emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012; Japan’s commitment is 6 percent below 1990 levels, whereas Europe’s required reductions are 8 percent. (For more information on the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, see resources page.)

The current Bush Administration has relied on voluntary efforts to reduce emissions, as did previous administrations. But without mandatory reductions, U.S. emissions continue to rise—in 2002 they were 16 percent above 1990 levels.

Congress is now considering two bills that, if enacted, would establish federal emissions limits for the entire United States (see Federal/Congressional Legislation). However, even if these were passed into law, federal commitments would fall far short of the U.S. commitment outlined by Kyoto.