When the world’s two largest polluters join in establishing new goals for reducing emissions of climate-disrupting gases, criticism and skepticism are predictable. And there was plenty following the recent agreement between the United States and China to do just that.
Critics warned of a “war on coal,” regulatory overreach and the surrender of American interests to Chinese duplicity. Skeptics wondered whether the goals were even feasible.
In fact, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-quarter over the next decade, as the United States has agreed to do, is simply another step in a transition to cleaner energy that has been underway for decades.
That realignment is the most important reason the security, affordability and efficiency of America’s energy services have never been better. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I work, found that total energy use in the United States peaked in 2007 and has trended downward since. Despite a small uptick in 2013, the total remains below the level of a decade earlier.
We also found that economic growth decisively outpaced any increases in energy use over recent decades, as America found smarter ways to use energy (like the LED, which uses one-fifth as much electricity as Edison’s original light bulb). Improvements in energy efficiency over the last 40 years have done more to meet growth in America’s energy needs than the combined contributions of oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
Without energy productivity improvements, America’s energy needs would have tripled since 1970, according to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Actual growth was only one-fifth of that. Energy efficiency has emerged as the largest and cheapest alternative to burning fossil fuels to generate electricity.
The efficiency trend shows up vividly in recent data on electricity consumption. Since 2000, growth in electricity use has dropped well below growth in the population, through both recessions and recoveries, despite a flood of new consumer electronics and other plug-ins.
Moreover, oil consumption by vehicles, homes and businesses is down more than 12 percent from its 2005 peak, despite a slight increase in 2013. Lower petroleum use is an important contributor to recent reductions in pump prices and declining reliance on foreign suppliers.
There is also good news on renewable energy. By last year, wind was providing more than 4 percent of America’s electricity generation. Solar is surging, too, although it still produces less than 1 percent of the total. For the first time, total hydropower generation (once the dominant source of renewable power) was overtaken over a 12-month period beginning in June 2013 by the combined contributions of other renewable energy sources, primarily wind, solar and geothermal. More than one-eighth of our electricity supply is now in the “renewable” category, which is growing faster than any other.
These trends put the country in a strong position to meet carbon dioxide emissions standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution from power plants. These standards would cut emissions by 30 percent compared with 2005 levels.
The E.P.A.’s proposal would encourage states to push for energy efficiency improvements across the economy to reduce power plant generation. Because optimizing energy use is cheaper than making more electricity, the E.P.A. projects that electric bills will drop.
Clean energy progress goes hand in hand with economic health, and America’s success in linking them is encouraging efforts worldwide to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That is why the deal between China and the United States should be understood as a way to advance both national and international interests. Achieving the pollution reductions involves expanding proven ways to deliver more affordable and reliable energy services. China is now the world’s largest renewable energy investor, and its energy productivity improvements have outstripped America’s in recent years.
Avoiding climate disruption will require reductions far in excess of what China and the United States have proposed. The transition to a clean energy economy needs to reach zero emissions.
We must start by rejecting attacks on the E.P.A. power plant standards. Utilities should boost their energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, and state utility regulators should speed up reforms to advance clean energy progress. We can find new ways to squeeze more miles from fewer gallons, while reducing our need to drive by planning more compact communities. And we can marshal more technology to use less energy while maintaining comfort, convenience and quality of life.
But we don’t need to change course, or kill jobs, or wage war on anybody or anything.
Ralph Cavanagh is the co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.