Emissions Target Offers Pathway to Stronger Renewable Energy Development

President Obama this week submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the administration’s target to cut net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s an official confirmation of the U.S. target announced in China last year to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The White House cites higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, as well as stricter federal efficiency rules for buildings, appliances and other energy consumption markets as playing big roles in meeting the target. The plan also relies heavily on the administration’s Clean Power Plan ‑ proposed EPA guidelines for existing power plants announced last June that would reduce power sector carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

While political debate continues over the cause of climate change, what is beyond dispute is that long-term temperatures are getting warmer and volatile weather – drought, flooding, destructive storms – has increased in occurrence and severity. As a result, two of the leading reports on climate change – the UN-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a report from more than 300 experts from multiple federal agencies that summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States now and in the future – show climate disruptions have had a negative impact on crop and livestock production. The U.S. assessment says not only have U.S. farmers and ranchers seen tougher growing conditions over the past 40 years, but those conditions will worsen over the next 25 years before turning particularly harsh starting at the mid-century mark.

Given that the White House target requires cleaner sources of power, it could represent a big step on the pathway toward strong and consistent renewable energy development, particularly in wind and solar. The economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy in curbing emissions have long been established, given that they offer low- and no-carbon alternatives to high-emission fossil fuels.

Prominent U.S. business interests – Google, Walmart, Kohl’s, Costco and Apple, among them ‑ are turning to wind and solar energy to help power their operations, showing foresight in the face of changing needs and economic and environmental conditions. Reducing emissions will also deliver ever-wider improvements in public health that will reduce health care costs. And given the continuing sharp decline in technology costs, particularly in solar and wind, investment in renewable energy will, over time, generate consumer savings.

As a result of the increased demand, renewable technologies are showing huge investment gains, signifying the arrival of clean alternatives as constants in a growingly diverse energy environment. A recent UN report shows global investments in renewable energy rebounded strongly last year, registering a solid 17 percent increase ‑ to $270 billion ‑ in 2014 after two years of decline.

Of that total global investment, the United States recorded $38.3 billion last year, up 7 percent over 2013 (though it ranked second to China, which recorded a record $83.3 billion in renewable energy investment, a jump of 39 percent from 2013).

Among the beneficiaries of this surge in U.S. investment are the rural areas that see new jobs created and tax bases widened. Landowners see new streams of revenue through leases for wind turbine and solar farm sites.

And what’s the bottom line in terms of just what this investment produces? The UN report shows wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed to an estimated 9.1 percent of world electricity generation in 2014, up from 8.5 percent in 2013. The increase meant that last year, the world electricity system emitted 1.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide less than it would have had that 9.1-percent share been produced through fossil fuels. The emissions saved represent roughly twice the emissions of the world’s airline industry.

The percent of renewable energy as a share of U.S. electricity generation is even better than the global figures. The most recent data from DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that renewable energy sources – wind, solar, biomass, hydropower and geothermal ‑ accounted for 13.2 percent of net U.S. electrical generation in 2014. That percentage would be even higher if the EIA also accounted for distributed energy resources, such as home-installed solar panels and single or small-number wind turbines facilities serving a local or on-site load for homes, farms, schools and public facilities.

However, while the plan submitted by the White House could serve to build on the gains made by the renewable energy sector, it falls short by failing to include the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the plan to cut U.S. GHGs. Given the impact a changing climate is having on U.S. agriculture, the RFS is a policy that specifically encourages farmers to grow the feedstocks for biofuels that have been proven to help the nation cut emissions and mitigate the conditions that are impacting growers’ ability to produce.

The U.S. numbers demonstrate strong forward progress to the 25x’25 goal of meeting 25 percent of the nation’s energy needs with renewable resources drawn from America’s rural areas by 2025. But with a stronger commitment to the nation’s biofuels sector, emissions could be more effectively cut and total economic and environmental benefits could rise significantly. Stakeholders are urged to continue reaching out to policy makers and reinforce the need for enabling policies that maintain the growth of all renewable energy sources that offers so many economic and environmental benefits.

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