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Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change CHAPTER ONE Introduction Climate change, driven by the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, poses serious, wide-ranging threats to human societies and natural ecosystems around the world. While many uncertainties remain regarding the exact nature and severity of future impacts, the need for action seems clear. In the legislation that initiated our assessment of America’s climate choices, Congress directed the National Research Council to “investigate and study the serious and sweeping issues relating to global climate change and make recommendations regarding the steps that must be taken and what strategies must be adopted in response to global climate change.” As part of the response to this request, the America’s Climate Choices Panel on Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change was charged to “describe, analyze, and assess strategies for reducing the net future human influence on climate, including both technology and policy options, focusing on actions to reduce domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other human drivers of climate change, but also considering the international dimensions of climate stabilization” (see full statement of task in Appendix B). In other words, this report examines the questions, “What are the most effective options to help reduce GHG emissions or enhance GHG sinks?” and “What are the policies that will help drive the development and deployment of these options?” CONTEXT AND PURPOSE OF THIS REPORT Devising strategies to limit future climate change involves an extensive and complex set of issues, and national leaders will be required to make difficult choices in responding to these issues. Increasing understanding of the risks and challenges involved in limiting the magnitude of climate change compels this panel to urge early, aggressive, and concerted actions to reduce emissions of GHGs. Although many technology and policy responses are available, the practical challenges to realizing their potential are immense. A large-scale national commitment that both generates and is underpinned by international cooperation is crucial if the risks of global climate change are to be substantially curtailed. Because action to initiate these efforts is urgently needed, our principal focus has been on steps that can and should be taken now. Specifically, we focus particular attention on strategies to
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Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change Reduce concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere as the principal means to limit the magnitude of climate change. This is primarily a challenge of reducing net GHG emissions (directly, or possibly through enhanced sequestration), but it could also encompass strategies to remove GHGs directly from the atmosphere. Promote options and policies that appear to be technically and economically feasible now or could become feasible in the near term. However, the report also identifies other strategies that may play an important role in the future but whose potential cannot be reliably estimated, and we encourage policies that can be adopted now to accelerate these future innovations. Although the urgent need for action is real, many relevant efforts are already under way. For example, 24 U.S. states and more than 1,000 U.S. cities have adopted some form of targets for limiting GHG emissions. The judicial system is also playing an increasingly important role, and two recent lawsuits may result in GHG emissions reduction through administrative or judicial action. As a result of Massachusetts v. EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a finding under the Clean Air Act that GHGs are endangering public health and welfare, which may form the basis for extensive regulation of GHGs under the Act. In Connecticut v. American Electric Power, the Second Circuit allowed a public nuisance case by several states and nonprofit organizations to go forward against the country’s largest utilities, alleging that past and ongoing CO2 emissions are contributing to global warming. If the plaintiffs ultimately succeed, the defendants presumably could be required to reduce their emissions. Furthermore, during the course of this study, Congress and the Obama Administration have been considering legislation to establish a national program for limiting future climate change. It is not our intent to comment on these actions or to evaluate the policies they embrace. Rather, we regard them as the necessary beginning of an ongoing process of developing a coherent national policy for limiting future climate change. Although we are optimistic that the United States can meet the challenges associated with limiting future climate change, we are also convinced that this can only be done as a long-term evolving process. Accordingly, our study develops two major themes in addition to the need for urgent action: Provide a national framework of strategies and policies to limit climate change, now and in the future. National policy goals must be implemented through the actions of the private sector, other levels of government, and individuals. The role of the federal government is to provide strong leadership and help shape the landscape in which all of these actors make decisions. Although this report
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Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change focuses on policy at the national level, our aim is to suggest a policy framework within which all actors can work effectively toward a shared national goal. In addition, we consider how U.S. actions can provide incentives for effective action on climate change by other countries. Chart a course for managing the policy process over the coming decades. It is inevitable that policies put in place today will need to be adjusted over time as new scientific information changes our understanding of the magnitude and nature of climate change. Moreover, the experience of implementing even well-conceived policies will no doubt produce unexpected difficulties (and, one hopes, surprising successes) to which future policy should adapt. And finally, technological innovation—or lack thereof—will alter the strategies available for limiting future climate change. It will be essential for policy makers to respond regularly to new knowledge about science, technology, and policy if we are to address climate change successfully. Because of the considerable complexities involved in climate change limiting policy, existing research and analysis do not always point to unequivocal recommendations. Where research clearly shows that certain policy design options are particularly effective, we recommend specific goals for the evolving policy portfolio. In other cases, however, we simply examine the range of policy choices available to decision makers and identify sources of further information on these choices. Relatively little research seems to be available on a few fundamentally important issues. For example, the problem of designing a durable yet adaptable policy framework to guide actions over decades is not well understood. In these cases, we raise the issue and point to the need for further analysis or research. PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE CLIMATE CHANGE LIMITING POLICY AND STRATEGY To provide structure and rigor to the process of evaluating alternative climate change limiting policies and strategies, the panel developed a set of guiding principles, selected after reviewing and debating nearly a dozen examples of principles for climate policy that have been proposed by nongovernmental organizations, congressional leaders, and others. The principles are intended to be enduring—reflecting nonpartisan, cross-generational, and pluralistic values. We acknowledge that an inherent tension exists among some of these principles, and thus it may not always be possible to satisfy them all simultaneously. The principles are not themselves policy prescriptive, nor do they represent a set of specific goals or desired outcomes. Rather, they were used as a framing exercise to help us identify priority recommendations. The principles are as follows:
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Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change Environmental Effectiveness: Set short- and long-term emissions-reduction targets that are consistent with meeting environmental goals. Cost Effectiveness: Achieve emission reductions at lowest possible costs, paying special attention to costs of delay. Innovation: Stimulate entrepreneurial capacity to advance technologies and strategies for reducing GHG emissions. Equity and Fairness: Strive for solutions that are fair among people, regions, nations, and generations, taking into account existing global disparities in consumption patterns and capacity to adapt. Do not penalize those who have taken early action to reduce emissions. Consistency: Ensure that new legislation is consistent with existing legislation to avoid delay and confusion. Durability: Sustain action over several decades, sending clear signals to investors, consumers, and decision makers. Transparency: Ensure that goals and policies, and their rationales, are clear to the public; establish clear benchmarks to assess and publicly report on progress. Adaptability: Review and adjust polices in response to evolving scientific information and socioeconomic and technological changes. Global Participation: Enhance engagement with other countries to cooperate in achieving climate change limiting goals. The climate challenge requires a global solution. Regional, State, and Local Participation: Encourage and support regional, state, local, and household action in ways that are consistent with national goals and policies. Many of these principles are discussed further in the subsequent chapters. ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT The balance of this report is organized as follows: Chapter 2 characterizes the challenge of limiting climate change by examining historical, current, and likely future GHG emission sources, and it examines representative targets and pathways for reducing U.S. domestic emissions. Chapter 3 examines the key strategies for limiting atmospheric concentrations of GHGs. To the extent possible, we assess how these strategies might attain the targets and pathways developed in Chapter 2.
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Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change Chapter 4 analyzes federal policies for implementing the key emission reduction strategies discussed above, and, where an adequate research basis exists, recommends critical policy goals. Chapter 5 discusses policies for promoting the technological innovation needed to develop strategies that are less costly and more effective than those in hand today. Chapter 6 examines how climate change limitation strategies interact with other important national policy goals, including social equity concerns, economic development threats and opportunities, energy security, and protection of air and water quality. Chapter 7 discusses policies for assuring a multilevel response to the climate problem. In particular, we consider how U.S. national policy affects international incentives and institutions, as well as state and local actions. Chapter 8 explores the concepts of policy durability and evolution as the basis for guiding the policy process over the coming decades.
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