Reducing Greenhouse Gas Pollution

The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III report drove home the urgent need for climate policy and action through mitigation. In addition to the critical need to make communities, ecosystems, and wildlife more resilient to the effects of climate change through adaptation strategies, mitigation is also a key component to draw down emissions. We need to restore and conserve natural ecosystems, incorporate urban green/blue infrastructure, electrify the grid, and enhance carbon uptake and storage in the urban environment. Scaling-up carbon dioxide removal technologies is another mitigation strategy vital to address hard-to-reduce legacy emissions from industry, transport, and agriculture.

Cleaning up the Power Sector

Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the United States. As of 2019, carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 80 percent of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions from the power sector (electricity generation) account for about 25 percent of those emissions. As the second largest source of emissions, behind transportation, addressing pollution from the energy sector is critically important. This is even more true as the nation seeks to reduce transportation emissions by switching to electric vehicles.

The Biden Administration has set a goal to produce 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 as part of its long-term strategy to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. That pace of emissions reductions on a global scale is what will be needed to avoid surpassing the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit that scientists have indicated increases the risk of runaway climate change—a scenario in which we will have little control over global environmental changes like sea-level rise, extreme weather, drought, and wildfire. Doing so will require major investment in renewable energy resources, battery and other energy storage technology, emerging technologies such as clean hydrogen, and new transmission lines. It will also require responsibly procuring the critical minerals needed to create solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, and other renewable technologies at scale. The National Wildlife Federation has been pushing Congress to fund these needed investments. Various proposals have been put forth in Congress to hasten the transition through policies like a Clean Electricity Standard that would require energy companies to deliver increasing amounts of zero-carbon electricity over time. Such a federal program would build off of the many state-level clean electricity or renewable portfolio standards that have been put in place in recent decades.

In addition to greenhouse gasses, fossil fuel power plants – particularly coal – emit other pollutants that threaten human health and contribute to early deaths. These include nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, which together form smog pollution, as well as toxic minerals such as mercury. Stronger regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency are needed to reduce power plant emissions, particularly in communities burdened by pollution and poor health.


Cutting Emissions in Industry

The latest in the series of UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that reducing the nearly one-quarter contribution of industrial emissions is necessary to meet climate goals. The report also stresses that “mitigation in industry can reduce environmental impacts and increase employment and business opportunities.” The industrial sector represents the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Cutting down on industry emissions means reducing direct emissions that come from industrial processes, which are often hard to avoid, while also developing broad solutions to reduce indirect emissions that occur at the industry site and throughout the supply chain for manufacturing processes. This can be done using economy-wide strategies, including a variety of technological solutions. 

Reducing direct process emissions using carbon capture, utilization, and storage. In 2020, carbon dioxide (CO2) process emissions alone made up 6.4% of all U.S. industrial greenhouse gas emissions, with iron/steel and cement production in the top-emitting sectors. In the case where CO2 emissions cannot be avoided, like these manufacturing processes, point-source carbon capture relies on using technology, either pre- or post-combustion, to capture the CO2 which can later be stored permanently underground or used as a feedstock to create low-carbon products and fuels. 

Deploying renewables to electrify the grid and avoid indirect emissions. Energy-related activities account for around 81% of all U.S. emissions across all sectors, with fossil fuel combustion contributing the most. In addition to combusting fossil fuels for manufacturing purposes, industries also burn fossil fuels to create the electricity driving other processes. To combat emissions from electricity and throughout the supply chain, a robust deployment of renewables is necessary. In 2021, renewable energy like hydropower, wind, solar, and geothermal only made up 20.1% of overall U.S. electricity generation, coming second to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, which made up 60.8% of U.S. electricity generation. Though there has been a general increase in the use of renewables to produce electricity since 2019, the increase of electricity production from renewable energy sources will only help further decarbonize our economy, as well as the industrial sector. 

Using direct air capture to reduce historic and unavoidable emissions. Even with the deployment of renewables and technological solutions like carbon capture and storage, there will still be some emissions that are difficult to abate. We also face the threat of historic or legacy CO2 emissions that have built up and remained in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. These legacy emissions are continually harder for our carbon cycle to process, as the efficiency of our natural carbon sinks like forests and oceans decline. For these more difficult emissions, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies can be employed. These are  techniques that remove CO2 directly from the air. One example of developing CDR technology is direct air capture (DAC), which uses chemical processes to bind to CO2, which can later be separated into a pure stream for sequestration or low-carbon feedstocks.


To learn more about industrial decarbonization strategies and carbon removal, check out our fact sheets and reports:

Cleaner Fuel Alternatives

Recent federal investments in electric vehicle (EVs) charging infrastructure and consumer rebates for purchasing EVs have accelerated the expansion of EVs on the road. Unfortunately, heavier modes of transportation such as aviation and maritime shipping cannot be easily electrified. The main way to reduce air travel’s climate impact is to replace conventional jet fuel with low- or no-carbon alternatives known as sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

Very limited amounts of SAFs are on the market today, being produced from tallow (animal fat) and vegetable oils such as soy oil. An over-reliance on traditional biofuel crops like corn and soybeans could have devastating consequences to wildlife habitats and water sources globally, as fields and forests are plowed under to produce these crops while still growing enough food for the growing global population. To avoid that worst-case scenario, additional research and investment must be devoted to alternative crops and non-crop pathways that can produce fuels without competing with food crops for land or harming wildlife populations.

Reducing Methane Pollution from the Oil and Gas Industry

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is the second biggest source of carbon emissions after carbon dioxide, accounting for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane has 25 times the climate change impact of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, but that impact is even higher in the short term—80 times as potent over a 20-year period. Fortunately, studies find that cutting methane emissions can slow down the rate of global warming and sea-level rise, buying us time to continue reducing other greenhouse gasses.

One-third of the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is due to human-caused methane pollution, of which the largest industrial source is oil and gas development. With the use of new technology, the oil and gas industry has expanded rapidly across the U.S., contributing significantly to climate change. Fortunately, new technologies also make achieving emissions reductions more feasible, much of it at no net cost to industry.

Federal regulations were initiated by President Obama to limit methane releases from oil and gas operations on federal, Tribal, and private lands, but these were rolled back during the Trump Administration. In November 2021, the Biden EPA proposed ambitious new protections to cut this climate-altering pollution from existing oil and gas facilities and ones yet to be built. The Biden Administration rule, when finalized, will reduce 41 million tons of methane emissions by 2035 -- equal to the carbon pollution of all U.S. passenger cars and commercial aircraft in 2019. The EPA must quickly move forward with these regulations.

Why We Need Strong Methane Regulations:

To learn more about the impacts of methane on our health and wildlife and the ongoing efforts to curb this pollution, check out our fact sheets and reports.

Natural Climate Solutions

Natural climate solutions are strategies that support or enhance the ability of natural systems to both mitigate climate change (enhancing the removal or storage of carbon) and strategies that increase the resilience of human communities and wildlife populations to the impacts of climate-related natural hazards.

In addition to fighting climate change with new technologies like renewable energy or direct air capture, natural climate solutions have a key role to play in reducing emissions and boosting the resilience of communities across America. These solutions can enhance the health of our soils and ecosystems, conserving forests, watersheds, grasslands, farmlands, and more. They can improve the quality of wildlife habitat and create economic opportunity through the reclamation, restoration, and maintenance of carbon stocks. Additionally, reclaiming degraded lands such as abandoned mines, orphaned oil and gas wells, brownfields, and Superfund sites have the potential to sequester carbon, reduce air and water pollution, and provide jobs and recreational opportunities.

In collaboration with EcoAdapt, our Incorporating Nature-based Solutions into Community Climate Adaptation Planning report offers guidance for local communities, planners, and climate service providers for integrating natural and nature-based features into adaptation and resilience planning.

Natural climate solutions are critical to the success of any climate change policy. The Natural Climate Solutions Policy Platform lays out the Federation’s federal policy recommendations to swiftly scale up natural climate solutions, for both climate mitigation and climate resilience. Recommendations are structured around several analytical categories based on land or habitat type. The platform includes natural climate solutions for forests, working agricultural lands, oceans and coastal ecosystems, resilience and adaptation, and more.

Climate and Communities 

Communities around the globe are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. However, some communities are more vulnerable to these effects than others. Climate vulnerability is determined by a community’s exposure and sensitivity to climate risks, and its capacity for coping with those risks.

Understanding which communities are the most at-risk of disproportionate environmental and climate effects is an important first step to crafting smart policy that aims to lessen inequity. Environmental justice screening and mapping tools can illustrate the cumulative burdens of communities, support community voices by providing data to back up experiences, and support policy to ensure investments are targeted where the need is greatest. Our white paper, Environmental Justice Mapping Tools: Their Use and Potential in Policy Making to Address Climate Change, focuses on how online mapping tools can be a powerful ally in the fight for environmental and climate justice.

The impacts of natural disasters that are becoming more frequent and/or severe also do not affect all people equally. Understanding these disparities is the first step to ensuring that mitigation, response, and recovery is distributed equitably. Our interactive Unnatural Disasters Story Map illustrates where natural disasters have hit in recent years across the United States. Other climate-exacerbated extreme heat, rising sea surface temperatures, and flooding also affect communities and wildlife.

The National Wildlife Federation works to ensure that climate solutions benefit everyone equitably—including historically disenfranchised, frontline, rural and fossil fuel-dependent communities and workers, who often bear the brunt of the climate crisis. Learn more about our work with communities.

Putting a Price on Carbon

The high costs of climate change caused by carbon pollution are already being felt around the globe. Sea level rise, melting glaciers, and shifting wildlife range are just a few of the costs of carbon pollution that are threatening wildlife. Locally, drought, wildfires, and extreme weather events have been increasingly common across the US and have had negative impacts on wildlife and human communities. Currently, emitters of carbon pollution can use the atmosphere as an open sewer, fully externalizing the high costs of carbon pollution on society and wildlife. We need policy mechanisms that will shift the costs of carbon pollution to the polluters and will result in carbon reduction emissions across all sectors, including the energy, transportation, industry, agriculture, and commercial and residential sectors. Establishing a price on carbon that will internalize the costs of carbon pollution for the polluters is one of the most straightforward options for efficiently achieving the necessary greenhouse gas reductions.

Carbon pricing can come in two main forms: a cap-and-trade program or emission trading program, and a carbon tax. Both of these policies achieve a similar result because they both shift the costs of carbon pollution from society as a whole to those responsible for the pollution. An economy-wide carbon pricing program would create incentives for polluters to invest in carbon pollution reduction technology and give the renewable energy industry a competitive edge over energy generation options that have high pollution costs.

Carbon Tax

Carbon taxes set a known price on carbon emissions, but do not set a specific limit on emissions. Emissions reductions are achieved by making the market more competitive for low-carbon fuels that do not have the costs of higher carbon fuels. Carbon taxes are desirable because they create an investment environment with a long-term set price on carbon, but the resulting carbon reductions are less predictable. British Columbia has a carbon tax in place that has successfully resulted in emission reductions.

Cap-and-Trade/Emission Trading Systems (ETS)

An Emission Trading System sets a limit for carbon emissions while allowing the market to determine the resulting price of carbon. This carbon pricing option has advantages because it is more likely to guarantee a set level of reductions. An ETS requires the creation of a new commodity and market: emission allowances. These allowances (also called credits or permits) are bought and sold on an open market and are already being used in California and by several Northeast states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Hybrid Carbon Pricing Programs

Hybrid systems are often an effective way to ensure the desired emission reductions are met. Many counties, including Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, use a combination of both a carbon tax and an ETS program, especially those covered by the European Union's ETS. In addition to these two policies, it is also possible to add in carbon offset programs, which allow conservation measures that store carbon to be counted toward carbon reduction goals. Our natural ecosystems have significant carbon sequestration potential, and valuing these systems within an overall carbon pricing scheme can be an important component of carbon pricing policies when the carbon stored by nature is additional, measurable, and verifiable, and does not allow for industrial pollution “hot spots” elsewhere.

To learn more about carbon pricing, please take a look at our resources.

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