This article was updated in June 2018.
The US is the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and has a patchy record on climate change.
The country notably refused to join the Kyoto Protocol. Under president Barack Obama, it signed up to the Paris Agreement, only for his successor Donald Trump to announce his intent to quit the deal.
In a polarised political environment, passing laws to cut emissions has proved difficult. Despite the challenges, some legal bases for tackling the issue have been established at federal and lower levels of government.
Does the US have legal carbon emissions targets?
Climate change laws in the US have recently taken a knock from President Trump’s decrees. His “Energy Independence” executive order, signed in March 2017 at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters, saw the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan of 2015. Under the Clean Air Act, the Plan set state-by-state targets for carbon emissions reductions and aimed to lower national electricity sector emissions overall by 32% below 2005 levels by 2050.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the US voluntarily committed to reduce GHG emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. While Trump has signalled plans to quit the deal, this cannot formally take effect before December 2020. Technically, the pledge still stands.
Nevertheless, the impetus for reducing emissions has shifted to cities, states, businesses and other organisations. Over 2,600 leaders have signed an open letter pledging to “support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement” as part of the “We Are Still In” declaration.
Several states have their own emissions reduction targets, with California at the forefront of the action. As of the end of 2014, 32 states and many more local governments had plans to address climate change, while a several others have enacted binding restrictions on GHG emissions.
How does the US political system make climate laws?
The Congress of the United States is a bicameral legislature, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. A bill can be introduced by a member of either chamber, and is then discussed by a Committee. Dependent on approval by the Committee, the bill is considered by the full chamber of either the House or Senate.
If a bill is approved by one chamber, it moves to the other, which may similarly pass, reject or amend it. In order for a proposed bill to become law, both Houses must agree on the same versions of the bill. Finally, presidential action is required by signing the bill. In the case of rejection from the President, this can be overridden if a two‐thirds majority of both chambers vote to do so.
However, difficulties in securing support in Congress to pass comprehensive legislation addressing climate change have meant that the regulatory approach, through bodies such as the EPA, is now more significant in terms of enacting climate laws. The EPA has begun to utilise its own existing authority to develop regulations, such as under the Clean Air Act.
Major climate laws promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency
Measures related to renewable energy and energy efficiency are at the core of the US legislative response to climate change. They mostly include funding initiatives for renewable technologies and greater energy efficiency, as well as the promotion of administrative regulations and behavioural change among businesses and consumers.
Clean Air Act 1963 – A federal law aiming to control air pollution on a national level. It requires the EPA to put in place regulations to protect the general public from exposure to harmful airborne contaminants. The “endangerment finding” of 2009 means the EPA is required to regulate substances according their greenhouse effect.
Energy Policy Act 2005 – Provided $4.3 billion tax breaks for nuclear power, $2.7 billion to extend the renewable electricity production credit, and $1.6 billion in tax incentives for investment in clean coal facilities. Loan guarantees were granted for innovative technologies such as advanced nuclear reactors and clean coal. The Bill also provided subsidies to wind energy, promoted the competitiveness of geothermal energy in relation to fossil fuels, and allocated $50 million annually to a biomass grant programme.
Energy Independence and Security Act 2007 – Introduces measures to expand the production of renewable fuels, reduce US dependence on oil and increase energy security. It sets a mandatory Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requiring fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, and provides incentives for the development of renewable energy technologies. The act also includes provisions on lighting: phasing out the use of incandescent light bulbs by 2014 and improving lighting efficiency by more than 70% by 2020.
Executive Order 13423 2007 – Demands federal agencies to conduct their transportation and energy‐related activities in an environmentally, economically and financially sound and integrated way.
Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 – Expands the Biorefinery Assistance Programme by providing loan guarantees of $320 million for the creation of commercial‐scale biorefineries as well as grants to build demonstration‐scale biorefineries.
The 2014 revision reauthorises and provides $880 million for energy programmes established in the 2008 Bill. The Biorefinery Assistance Programme is further expanded to include bio-based product and renewable chemical manufacturing, and expands the Bio-preferred programme to include forestry products.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 – The Bill authorises a stimulus package that supports new and existing renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes through allocation of $16.8 billion. In addition, the limitation on the issuance of new clean renewable energy bonds was increased by $1.6 billion.
Executive Order 13514 2009 – Prioritises GHG emission management for federal agencies by establishing reporting requirements with detailed targets and deadlines. The Order focuses on transportation, overall energy use and procurement policies. All federal agencies are required to develop, implement and annually update a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan.
Duncan Hunter National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2009 – Authorises defence spending for fiscal year 2009 and includes several provisions aimed at energy efficiency, renewable energy and use of alternative sources of energy within the armed forces. The Act also allocates $55 million to support renewable biomass use in biorefineries instead of fossil fuels, as well as creating the Rural Energy for America Programme (REAP). Worth $285 million, this promotes the use of hydroelectric source technologies.
Executive Order 13653 2013 – This E.O.’s goal is to improve the nation’s preparedness and resilience for the impacts of climate change. Agencies are required to take a series of steps to make it easier for American communities to strengthen their resilience to climate change. These include strong partnerships and information sharing at all levels of government, and risk-informed decision-making. Adaptive learning is also key, where experiences serve as opportunities to inform and adjust future actions, as well as preparedness planning.
Executive Order 13693 2013 – Planning for federal sustainability in the next decade. This sets a new target for the federal government’s GHG emissions to be reduced by 40%, and the share of renewable electricity consumed by the federal agencies to increase to 30% by 2025 (compared to 2008). This is to be achieved through a broad range of measures that aim to make the federal government’s operations more sustainable, efficient and energy-secure.
Clean Power Plan 2015 – Developed under the 1963 Clean Air Act, the plan establishes state targets for carbon emissions reductions, and offers a flexible framework under which states may achieve those targets. Options for cutting emissions include investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, natural gas, and nuclear power, and shifting away from coal-fired power. The Plan also aims to limit shift to natural gas and promote renewables in its place.
Electrify Africa Act 2016 – Legislates the US initiative and goal to provide access to power for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020, and to enable the installation of an additional 20,000 megawatts of electricity capacity by 2020.
Methane and Waste Prevention Regulation 2016 – Aims to reduce natural gas wasted by venting, flaring, and leaks during oil and natural gas production activities on onshore Federal and Indian lands. The regulations also intend to clarify when produced natural gas lost through such activities is subject to royalties. The objective of the measures is to “help curb waste of natural gas supplies; reduce harmful air pollution, including greenhouse gases; and provide a fair return on public resources for federal taxpayers, Tribes, and States”.
Consolidated Appropriations Act 2016 – Renews tax credit programs for wind and solar electricity generation and incorporates a phase-out schedule for these support programs, providing partial stability for the renewable energy market.