Clean Energy: A One-Two Punch in the Fight Against Global Warming

Mar 13, 2014 | Updated May 13, 2014

"Two words: Clean Energy." If the classic 1967 film The Graduate were remade today, that's the career advice young Dustin Hoffman would hear from his savvy elders. The future lies in clean energy.

Driven in part by our growing sense of obligation to our children to tackle climate change and in part by the growing awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of shifting to less polluting energy options, leaders all across America have adopted policies that are reducing climate-altering emissions from fossil fuels. In cities and in state capitals, policymakers are crafting programs that prevent energy waste and expand the share of our energy we get from clean, renewable sources. And those actions have laid a strong foundation for aggressive national action.

As we document in our report, "Moving America Forward," energy efficiency and renewable energy measures are delivering a one-two punch in the fight against global warming, all across America. In 2012, emissions of climate-altering carbon pollution were at their lowest level since 1994 -- a low not seen since Bill Clinton's first term in office. This is a remarkable shift, given that U.S. carbon pollution rose inexorably for decades. Emissions peaked in 2007, and then declined for the next five years, even as the worst impacts of the 2008 recession began to fade and the economy started to bounce back.

Clean energy leadership is an important part of the story behind this historic shift. For example:

Twenty-nine states have established state-level renewable electricity standards, which require utilities to secure a portion of their electricity from renewable sources, such as the wind and the sun. And the federal government has supported wind and solar energy through tax credits and through direct purchases of renewable energy. The amount of electricity generated from wind and solar energy quadrupled from 2007 to 2012. This helped avert 60 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2012, equal to annual emissions from 13 million cars.

At the same time, half of the states have adopted standards that cut energy waste in homes, factories and businesses. These programs have led to energy performance upgrades in buildings across the country, ranging from low-income housing to skyscrapers. For example, managers at New York's Empire State Building installed new windows, lighting and heating and cooling equipment; cutting energy costs by almost 40 percent and earning profit on the project in just three years. Actions to implement energy efficiency programs across America since 2007 prevented more than 60 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2012. That impact is comparable to shutting down 17 coal-fired power plants.

States also pioneered a major improvement in the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. Long before the Obama administration took office, California and 13 other states were adopting their own state-level clean car standards. This state leadership laid the foundation for the first ever national carbon pollution standards for vehicles, which began with model-year 2012 cars. This program cut 39 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2012--the equivalent of saving more than 4 billion gallons of gasoline. And in future years, this impact of this program will grow much, much larger.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, is another innovative and notable program. RGGI is a multi-state effort to limit global warming pollution from power plants, sell permits to emit carbon, and invest the revenues in energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives. Since it took effect in 2009, RGGI has helped to reduce regional climate-changing pollution by more than 30 percent. At the same time, it has added more than $2.3 billion to the economies of participating states. It has created jobs -- more than 23,000 job-years of work across the region. And it has funded energy-efficiency measures that will save residential, commercial and industrial electricity customers more than $1 billion on their energy bills.

Amidst all of the good news, however, we cannot forget the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world has only 15 years to dramatically curtail global warming pollution. Allowing carbon pollution to continue unabated would threaten our health, risk our ability to supply adequate amounts of food and water, submerge coastal areas under sea level rise, increase the risks we face from extreme weather and risk irreparable harm to land and ocean ecosystems across the world.

On behalf of our children and future generations, we have an obligation to build on the progress we have made so far, and accelerate action.

The next front in the battle against global warming is to set a national limit on carbon pollution from power plants -- which are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. climate pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently limits arsenic, lead, soot and other dangerous pollution from power plants -- but not carbon pollution. The EPA is developing new rules for cleaning up power plants, expected in June.

Big polluters want to continue to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air instead of adopting sensible limits that protect public health and slow global warming. And they want us to absorb the costs of climate change. That is wrong. We cannot let fossil fuel interests and their allies block progress.

The challenge of climate change and the clear benefits of clean energy should be enough to persuade political leaders of all stripes to support common-sense action that will cut carbon pollution and accelerate our shift to renewable energy.

The trends are clear. Clean energy is on the rise and is beginning to yield real results. Now, if our political leaders stand up to the big polluters, we can accelerate the clean energy revolution.

In today's remake of The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman would hear this wise advice: "Two words: Clean Energy. There's a great future in clean energy. Think about it."