Greenhouse Gas Control Policies in the United States

May 7, 2012, 1:38 pm
Source: Crs
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Source: Wendell Cox with newgeography

See also: Overview of Greenhouse Gas Control Policies in Various Countries

Overall GHG emission target and timing

The United States has not set legally binding targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, neither under domestic law nor international treaty. President Barack Obama stated a policy to reduce U.S. GHG emissions to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020 (to approximately 1990 levels), and the Congress has been working on legislation (e.g., S. 1733 and H.R. 2454) that may set a comparable emission cap. Some Obama Administration officials have suggested that the U.S. and EU GHG targets are comparable, in that both parties[1] would reduce emissions approximately 1.4% annually through 2020.[2] (However, the EU’s target is enacted into law.) On November 25, the White House announced that President Obama would attend the international negotiations on an agreement to address climate change beyond the year 2012, stating that “he will take with him an emissions reduction target to drive progress....”[3] The numerical target was not given.

Had the United States become a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, it would have an obligation to reduce GHG emissions by 7% below 1990 levels during the first commitment period of 2008- 2012. In 2007, U.S. GHG emissions were about 16% above 1990 levels.[4] Of the 50 States, 23 have set state-wide GHG mitigation targets, of which six are caps (maxima). While some are enforceable, others are not.

Principal Policy Instruments

Current federal climate change policies provide incentives, but few requirements, explicitly to reduce GHG emissions; many programs exist, however, that contribute to limiting GHG emissions through energy efficiency standards, and technical assistance and financial incentives for renewable energy or other low-emitting technologies. For example, a number of tax incentives are in place to encourage investment in renewable energy, more efficient vehicles, and efficiency improvements to buildings. The White House identifies more than $80 billion of funding for clean energy provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5), including the “largest-ever investment in renewable energy.”[5] Other incentives induce agricultural producers to enhance soil carbon. While temporary financial incentives have been associated with greater investments, some stakeholders have indicated that longer duration of the incentives and combining with other market correction measures are important to effectiveness.

A suite of federal[6] programs, including the Energy Star, Climate Leaders, and Climate Challenge branded initiatives, provides information, technical assistance, and nominal awards to businesses, universities, and other consumers to quantify and reduce their GHG emissions; such programs generally are intended to encourage emission reductions that are already economical but do not occur because of market inefficiencies.

Some GHG reductions are achieved by existing or contemplated regulations. A major regulatory effort governs the energy efficiency of vehicles. For example, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will tighten for Model Year 2011 cars and trucks to approximately 27.3 miles per gallon (mpg). Again, these regulations have been put in place for reasons other than abating climate change. However, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are coordinating to propose new, joint CAFE and GHG emission standards for Model Years 2012-2016. The proposal would reach an estimated combined average of 34.1 mpg by 2016 (Table 1); combined with EPA’s compliance credits for improving air conditioners of vehicles, the improvement could reach the GHG equivalent of 35.5 mpg. The proposed rules contain flexibilities for manufacturers to comply with the new standards by earning credits by over-complying, or by producing alternative or dual-fueled vehicles. Holders of credits may use them for compliance of other model years or classes, or trade them to another manufacturer. The agencies project that the new standards would reduce GHG emissions by about 900 million metric tons,[7] and reap net cost savings over the lifetimes of vehicles.

 Table 1. Average Required Fuel Economies under Proposed Standards
(in miles per gallon for model year vehicles)







 Passenger Cars






 Light Trucks












 Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “NHTSA and EPA Propose New national Program to Improve Fuel Economy and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Passenger Cars and Light Trucks” fact sheet available at

The United States has set minimum standards of energy efficiency for a wide variety of residential and commercial equipment since the 1970s, with updates by several more recent laws.[8] Efforts are currently underway to address a backlog of regulations, such as for residential water heaters, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and for commercial motors and lamps, and a number of new, more stringent standards were issues in 2009. About two dozen additional standards are planned over the next few years. In some instances, states may have set appliance efficiency standards more stringent than federal standards (e.g. television standards in California). Methane emissions from landfills are controlled along with other air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. According to EPA, the regulation requires installation of gas collection and control systems for new and existing landfills and, generally, routing the gas to an energy recovery system. The gas control system must reduce collected landfill gas (LFG) emissions by 98%.[9]

Large programs are devoted to developing new technologies that would be necessary to reduce GHG emissions below current levels. Many experts contend that voluntary efforts (such as the U.S. Climate Leaders Program), research on technologies, and existing regulatory and tax incentives cannot achieve the GHG reductions necessary to avoid “dangerous” climate change.

Of the $6.4 billion in U.S. federal funding in FY2008 for climate change activities, almost all was for scientific and technological research and development. In addition, tax incentives that could help to reduce GHG emissions were equivalent to about $1.5 billion in FY2008. As mentioned above, more than $80 billion in funding was available in FY2009. Funding for regulatory, voluntary, and public education programs was a few percent of the total. President Obama has also pledged, along with leaders of more than 20 other countries, to seek to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, reducing associated GHG emission by an estimated 10% or more by 2050.[10]

The 110th Congress enacted two broad pieces of legislation—an omnibus energy bill (P.L. 110- 140) and a comprehensive appropriations act (P.L. 110-161)—that include climate change provisions. Both statutes increase climate change research efforts, and the energy act requires improvement in vehicle fuel economies, as well as other provisions that would reduce (or sometimes increase) GHG emissions. P.L. 110-161 directs the EPA to develop regulations that establish a mandatory GHG reporting program that applies “above appropriate thresholds in all sectors of the economy.”

In the absence of a federal regulatory framework to address U.S. GHG emission reductions, a majority of states have established formal GHG mitigation policies, including targets for future reductions. Sixteen states[11] are regulating CO2 emissions from electric utilities: 11 using a sectoral cap-and-trade approach, and five using emission performance standards. In several regions, including the Northeast, the Midwest and the West, states are working together to create regional schemes to cap GHG emissions and allow trading of emissions permits across borders.

All states but four now support “net metering” to allow producers of renewably-generated electricity to sell what they don’t use into the electric grid. Twenty-six states have set renewable portfolio standards and another four have set alternative energy portfolio standards; these standards require that a specified share of the state’s electricity must be generated by renewable or alternative energy sources by a given date. An additional five states encourage renewable or alternative energy sources with non-binding goals. In the transportation sector, 15 states, led by California, are adopting GHG emission standards for motor vehicles, and three additional states are poised to follow. Thirty-eight states offer tax exemptions, credits, and/or grants to promote biofuels, of which 13 have set regulations requiring a specified share of motor fuels to come from biomass. To address growth of traffic, 18 states have set “smart growth” policies. Arizona, for example, has enacted laws and required improved coordination of state agency spending to help communities address a variety of growth pressures.

Three of these states have also set targets to reduce vehicle miles traveled in the state. For example, the State of Washington set a goal in 2008 to reduce annual per capita vehicle miles traveled by 18% by 2020, 30% by 2035, and 50% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Building codes typically fall under local authorities, although a growing number of states have set performance standards that help to limit GHG emissions. Most states have set efficiency standards for state, commercial, and residential buildings. Twelve have set appliance efficiency standards as well.

Over the past five years, a proliferation of litigation relating to climate change also presses the federal government toward actions to reduce GHG emissions. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA must consider regulating CO2 and other GHG emitted from motor vehicles as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.[12] The Obama Administration has made clear that it would prefer Congress to enact GHG-specific legislation but that it will move to regulate in the absence of such new law. Further litigation has been pursued, challenging the Executive Branch to action, using the Endangered Species Act, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. A few international-law claims have been filed against the United States as well.[13]

Covered Gases and Sectors

Only methane emissions currently are regulated directly, although CO2 has been proposed to be regulated from motor vehicles (in a joint rule with fuel economy standards) and is reduced through other regulatory measures.

Allocation of GHG reductions to various sectors

Because no economy-wide reduction strategy is in place, there is no allocation among sectors.

Regulations or exemptions specific to trade-sensitive sectors

Because no economy-wide reduction strategy is in place, there are no regulations or exemptions in place specific to trade-sensitive sectors. H.R. 2454, which passed the House on June 26, 2009, includes two strategies to address possible shifts of GHG emissions from the United States to less regulated companies in other countries : (1) free allocation of allowances (similar to that of the EU), and (2) an international reserve allowance (IRA) scheme. The scheme would require importers of energy-intensive products from countries with insufficient carbon policies to submit a prescribed amount of “international reserve allowances,” or IRAs, for their products to gain entry into the United States. Based on the GHG emissions generated in the production process, IRAs would be submitted on a per-unit basis for each category of covered goods from a covered country. Specifically,H.R. 2454 Section 768 requires EPA to promulgate rules establishing an international reserve allowance system for covered goods from the eligible industrial sector, including allowance trading, banking, pricing, and submission requirements. (See also the Appendix, comparing U.S. efficiency standards for motor vehicles with those of other countries.)



caption Figure A-1. Comparison of International Fuel Economy and GHG Standards. Source: Feng An, “Revised Chart for World Standards,” Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation
(iCET) (2009). Available at



caption Figure A-2. Standardized Comparison of Select Vehicle Efficiency Standards Internationally (standards as of mid-2009). Source: Feng An, “Revised Chart for World Standards,” Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation (iCET) (2009). Available at



  1. ^ The European Union, as a regional economic integration organization, is a Party to the UNFCCC, as are its member countries.
  2. ^ This is not the first quantitative GHG goal set for U.S. climate change policy: on April 21, 1993, President William J. Clinton “announce[d] our nation’s commitment to reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000,” consistent with the Article 4 aim of the UNFCCC. The challenge in meeting that aim with voluntary measures only led to agreement on mandatory GHG reduction obligations in the Kyoto Protocol. In 2002, President George W. Bush stated a goal of reducing carbon intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 18% from 2002 to 2012, about a four percentage point improvement over business-asusual. At the time, the Administration projected GHG to increase to about 7,709 (MMTCO2e), or about 11% above 1990 levels. In April 2008, President George W. Bush announced a new national goal for climate policy—to halt increases in U.S. emissions of GHG by 2025.
  3. ^ White House, “Combating Climate Change at Home and Around the World,” November 25, 2009,
  4. ^ United States Environmental Protection Agency, The U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990- 2007, EPA 430-F-06-010 (Washington DC: Office of Atmospheric Programs, 2009).
  5. ^ White House, 2009, op. cit.
  6. ^ See,, and
  7. ^ White House, 2009, op. cit.
  8. ^ Established by Part B of Title III of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), P.L. 94-163, as amended by the National Energy Conservation Policy Act, P.L. 95-619, by the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, P.L. 100-12, by the National Appliance Energy Conservation Amendments of 1988, P.L. 100-357, and by the Energy Policy Act of 1992, P.L. 102-486, and by the Energy Policy of 2005, P.L. 109-58.
  9. ^
  10. ^ White House, 2009, op. cit.
  11. ^ Data on state policies come from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change website, extracted November 20, 2009.
  12. ^ Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S. Ct. 1438 (2007).
  13. ^ See CRS Report RL32764, Climate Change Litigation: A Survey, by Robert Meltz.


Note: The first version of this article was drawn from  R40936 An Overview of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Control Policies in Various Countries by Jane A. Leggett, Richard K. Lattanzio, Carl Ek, and Larry Parker, Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2009.


Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Congressional Research Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Congressional Research Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




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