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Earth Day 2024 report card: Experts address America’s climate change action

todayApril 22, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — Earth Day offers an annual opportunity for citizens, experts and lawmakers to not only celebrate the planet, but examine our impact on the changing environment and demand a push toward a sustainable future.

To make a united step forward, awareness of the mounting climate crisis is vital, Dr. Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Climate and Land Use Change at the U.S. Geological Survey told ABC News ahead of Earth Day.

“The global Earth observations community has characterized a triple planetary crisis of interconnecting stressors: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” Burkett said, adding land degradation and deforestation to the list of great concern.

“Collectively, the interconnected effects of human activity pose significant challenges for human security and sustainable development,” Burkett warned.

Unnatural Disasters

Greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide concentrations are now more abundant in the earth’s atmosphere than any time in the last 800,000 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which notes, burning fossil fuels changes the climate more than any other human activity.

Climate experts caution that larger and more severe weather events due to the effects of climate change have become a reality in America and threaten our future.

“Climate impacts are affecting people’s lives right now,” Costa Samaras, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, told ABC News.

“Climate change makes things such as extreme heat and extreme storms worse, which can be dangerous to people, especially folks in vulnerable communities,” Samaras said.

The human-generated rise in greenhouse gases has escalated the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report released in 2021.

This includes destructive wildfires and the barrage of atmospheric rivers to extreme heat and deadly deep freezes.

“As we experience these bigger fires, wildfire smoke, atmospheric rivers, changes in precipitation patterns and more, we all need to think about ways that we can be better prepared and help our families to be more resilient,” Dr. Brian Henning, director of the Gonzaga University Institute for Climate, Water and the Environment, told ABC News.

“The longer we wait to take significant action, the larger and the more complicated those problems get,” Henning warned.

Reducing reliance on fossil fuels which release greenhouse gasses, promoting net-zero carbon emission transportation and mitigating the exploitation and pollution of natural ecosystems are paramount in combating the effects of climate change, experts say.

“The predominant way we currently consume, extract, exploit, produce and pollute will exacerbate the climate crisis,” Professor Erlinde Cornelis, leader of San Diego State’s Senate Sustainability Committee, told ABC News.

“The U.S. has all the climate science at its fingertips, some of the best scientists in the world that can inform policy,” Cornelis said. “We know where we need to go, so there is no excuse for inaction.”

Looking at the steps necessary to reduce the country’s role in climate change, ABC News spoke with experts Burkett, Samaras, Henning, Cornelis and Dr. Aiguo Dai, a professor with the University at Alabany’s Department of Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences.

Decarbonize America

As the effects of climate change come knocking at American doors across the country, Henning believes U.S. lawmakers can no longer rely on crisis response measures and instead need to address the root causes of the climate crisis.

“We need to decarbonize our heating and our transportation systems to be able to finally bend the curve and reduce our fossil fuel emissions,” Henning said.

Industrial process heat is the use of thermal energy to produce, treat, or alter manufactured goods and is the most significant source of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial sector, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Process heat accounts for about 50% of all onsite energy use and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, the agency reports.

To understand the scope of the issue, process heating systems are emission-intensive because fossil fuel combustion provides 95% of industrial heat across the U.S.’s manufacturing sector, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Building the nation’s industrial sector away from fossil fuel combustion could potentially include zero-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen or ammonia, and low-carbon fuels, such as biofuels made from plant waste or algae, according to the agency.

“I think the complex, global problems we face today is the ultimate opportunity for the business world to showcase its ingenuity at problem-solving,” Cornelis said, noting, “The U.S. would benefit from leading the way to a circular, inclusive, regenerative and fossil fuel-free economy.”

Subsidize electric vehicles

The transportation sector, including all modes of travel through land, air and sea, accounts for nearly a third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization — signed in 2022 by the leaders of the Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency — aims to cut all greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by 2050.

While the rise in popularity and production of electric vehicles shows a glimpse at a future of net-zero carbon emission transportation, experts say America is not pushing the needle far enough to reach our climate goals.

“We need to transition away from fossil fuel-burning cars to electric cars and other low-emission vehicles,” Dr. Aiguo Dai told ABC News. “Otherwise, we are not going to reach the goals to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Dai believes the United States government must do more to encourage electric vehicles, through competitive pricing, subsidies for EV purchases and expansion of charging facilities.

“If there is a need, then there will be a commercial market,” Dai said. “But at the very beginning, we need the government to support the investment into electric transportation.”

In 2022, 10% of passenger vehicles sold globally were electric, according to the International Energy Agency.

The top five countries with the highest rate of electric vehicle sales are Norway, with 80% of car sales being EV, Iceland (41%), Sweden (32%), the Netherlands (24%) and China (22%), according to the World Resources Institute, which notes, the United States had only 6% of car sales being electric.

“U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 12% between 2005 and 2019, mostly due to reductions in emissions from electric power generation,” Burkett said. “To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, US emissions would need to decline by more than 6% per year.”

To be consistent with international climate goals, electric vehicle sales must grow by 75% to 95% internationally by 2030, according to the World Resources Institute.

Depoliticize climate change

“We can’t get emissions to net-zero without getting the U.S. to net-zero,” Samaras, who served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), told ABC News, adding, “The Biden-Harris administration has taken the boldest climate action in history.”

The Biden-Harris administration has channeled a substantial amount of funding toward climate action during their term, experts say, namely through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“The United States is finally taking really significant action, for the first time ever, through the Inflation Reduction Act, although its name wouldn’t necessarily tell you that it was a major piece of climate legislation, it really was,” Henning said.

The legislation offers funding, programs and incentives to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, according to the EPA, noting the act offers, “new access to clean energy tax credits with an emphasis on reaching disadvantaged populations and communities with environmental justice concerns.”

Henning explained how the legislation’s focus on environmental justice is exciting, especially on a federal level.

“The government is trying to get money to communities who need it the most,” Henning said. “So rather than just looking at ways of getting solar panels on wealthy families’ houses, they’re really looking at how do we bring resources to historically disadvantaged communities and make them more resilient, less polluted, and so that we can write some of these historical inequities as well.”

Earlier this month, the Biden-Harris administration announced $20 billion in awards to expand access to clean energy and climate solutions and lower energy costs for communities across the nation.

“These are significant efforts that absolutely move the needle,” Cornelis said. “The problem, however, is the counterforces.”

The funding for renewable energy resources must also be met with the reduction of spending on fossil fuels, according to Cornelis, who noted, “We’re basically neutralizing our efforts.”

The oil and gas industry spent approximately $124.4 million lobbying the federal government in 2022, according to a report from OpenSecrets, citing lobbying disclosures.

“Wealthy corporations know that climate action poses an existential threat to their industry, so they are incentivized to lobby hard and dissuade politicians from implementing meaningful or drastic regulations to advance climate action,” Cornelis claimed.

“It’s like biking uphill as fast as we can while squeezing the brakes,” she said.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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