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Expert Voices

Obama's Sensible Climate Plan: Boost Economy, Slash Emissions (Op-Ed)

Planet Earth.
Planet Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I had the privilege of sitting in thesmall audience at Georgetown University when President Barack Obama laid out his plan to address climate change.He gave a great speech and, even better, laid out a terrific plan. It was inspiring to hear the president commit to tackling one of the biggest — probably the single biggest — threat to the U.S. economy and future generations. And it was exciting to learn he is taking a practical,proven,commonsense approach to this challenge.

The president's climate action plan can succeed because it is built on solutions already working around the country. (NRDC, I'm proud to say, helped get many of these solutions off the ground.)

Throughout private industry and government agencies, red states and blue states, big cities and small towns, people are cutting carbon pollution and creating clean-energy jobs. The evidence is clear: Climate action saves money and generates economic prosperity.

Several states, for example, have already limited the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can release. Nine Northeastern states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) have established a regional limit that has cut power-plant carbon emissions by 30 percent and resulted in measures that will save consumers $1.3 billion on energy bills. California is on track to cut its total carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. In addition to the $65 billion Californians have already saved on their energy bills, electricity customers will begin receiving twice-yearly climate dividends next year at an estimated $60 per customer. Between 2013 and 2020, those dividends are expected to range from $5.7 billion to $22.6 billion

Obama called for creating similar carbon standards for the entire nation, and several utilities have offered their support. PSEG, NextEra Energy, New York Power Authority and others said Tuesday (June 25) that they welcomed the effort to cut pollution that contributes to global warming. In addition, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas Farrell said his company would work with the Obama administration to promote low-carbon technology. [8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World]

"We have put our words into action by making significant investments that should reduce our carbon-dioxide combustion emissions by about a third by 2015 and lower other emissions by as much as 90 percent by 2020," Farrell said.

This is the kind of investment in innovation that has made America strong. Time and time again, people have found better, more efficient ways to do things. The average car now includes a computer more powerful than the one that first sent humans to the moon. The typical household refrigerator uses about 75 percent less energy than it did in 1975. The air contains 90 percent less lead than in 1980. Power-plant technology can reduce sulfur emissions by more than 95 percent. Surely, we can reduce the amount of carbon in our power fleet.

Clean, renewable power is a critical part of reducing carbon, and Obama called for dramatically expanding the country's use of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Again, cities and states are already leading the way. Twenty-nine states have standards requiring utilities to generate a specific percentage of their power sales from renewable energy. In Texas, wind power accounts for about 10 percentof electricity produced in the state. Iowa now gets roughly 20 percent of its power from wind energy, and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said, "As wind energy grows, so does the Iowa economy."

This dramatic expansion has created jobs. More than 200,000 Americans work in the wind and solar sectors, and more than 550 factories on U.S. soil produce parts for the wind industry. The expansion also unleashes real and lasting benefits for local communities. A single wind farm, like Twin Ridges in Pennsylvania, can generate about $2 million in annual payments to local landowners and an additional $500,000 for schools, the township and the county. And generating power without having to worry about fuel costs is a good long-term business prospect for wind developers and energy consumers. [Power of the Future: Top 10 Alternative Energy Ideas]

Energy efficiency, meanwhile, is already saving homeowners and businesses billions of dollars. The recent energy retrofit of the Empire State Building saved its owners $2.4 million dollars in its first year of operation, and is expected to save $4.4 million annually when the project is complete. Tenants in efficient buildings are building out high-performance spaces that will save them a combined millions of dollars in energy costs over the duration of their leases. Efficiency standards for appliances, such as refrigerators and dishwashers, already issued by the administration will save consumers a cumulative total of $95 billion on their energy bills by 2035. By that time, the standards will also reduce annual carbon pollution equivalent to the emissions from 25 coal-fired power plants.

These are the types of concrete solutions Obama called for in his climate plan — the kinds of strategies that have already been proven to work across the country. And yet, naysayers will still claim that stabilizing our climate and investing in innovation is somehow bad for America.

Many of the opponents base their arguments on the assumption that the president's plan will raise utility bills, when, in fact, carbon-pollution limits could be implemented in ways that could save families as much as $700 each year on electric bills. Opponents also ignore the job growth in the utility sector that results from the development and production of wind and solar energy. Polluters will claim the president's plan is waging a so-called "war on coal," when, in fact, it's waging a war on pollution— pollution that is hurting kids and threatening people's homes and livelihoods. We should applaud, not attack, the president's commitment to Americans' health and to making the air safer to breathe and the climate more stable.

That's a commitment that will benefit all Americans. By cutting carbon pollution from its biggest source and continuing to boost energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy, the country is taking a decisive step to protect communities, build an engine of economic prosperity and that will sustain our society for decades to come.

Despite the heat yesterday, those who witnessed his remarks were all excited to see the President lay out a plan to take on this challenge — a move that will allow Americans to look our kids in the eyes and say that we did our best to leave behind a healthy planet.

Read Lehner's most recent Op-Ed: Can Your Beach Vacation Make You Sick?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on