How to build a climate resilient United States
- 07 May 2014, 16:00
- Mat Hope
Imagine a US where the streets are lined with
trees and office workers start their shifts at night.
Those are just two changes the US government could implement to cut
emissions and make the country more resilient to the impacts of
climate change, according to a new report.
The US National
Climate Assessment (NCA), released yesterday, illustrates how
climate change is already having an impact across the US, with corn
yields are dwindling in Iowa and drought in the arid southwest
intensifying. President Obama ordered the report as part of his
landmark climate policy package - the
Climate Action Plan - announced last year. While climate change
was "once considered an issue for a distant future" it has now
"moved firmly into the present", the report says.
The majority of the US's greenhouse gas emissions come from
transport - just over a third of the country's total, the report
says. That means any plan to cut the US's emissions must involve
changing how its population gets around.
The NCA says the government should do more to encourage more
vehicles run on biofuels or electricity to help reduce transport
emissions. More can also be done to improve vehicles' energy
efficiency, it argues.
Not only is the transport sector one of the US's largest
emitters, it's also one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of
climate change, according to the NCA. Floods, droughts, and other
extreme weather events - all of which can be exacerbated by climate
change - can severely disrupt transportation, inconveniencing
individuals and costing the US economy millions of dollars.
More highways should be built to ensure that when one road is
closed there are alternative routes for lorries to deliver their
goods, the NCA says. Doing so would show the US had learned from
past mistakes, such as when flooding caused the closure of two
interstate highways in 2007, costing the US economy an estimated
Improving walkways could also help get people out their cars and
ease congestion. Urban forestry initiatives can reduce temperatures
in abnormally warm cities - known as the "urban heat island effect"
- making it more attractive for people to walk around densely
Developing more advanced systems to monitor weather and road
conditions is also necessary. Providing road agencies with
up-to-the-minute information would allow them to send out warnings
and dispatch help in the case of flooding or snowfalls, the NCA
Transport isn't the only sector the government should target,
the report says.
While emissions from the power sector have dropped in recent
years, electricity generation was still responsible for around
32 per cent of the US's emissions in 2012. So if the US wants
to cut emissions, it needs to make its power stations less
That means ramping up the amount of electricity generated from
renewable sources. Wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear all have
the potential to deliver large chunks of low carbon electricity
across the US.
That's encouraging, because no country - including the US - can
burn coal and gas beyond the end of the century without carbon
capture and storage technology, the report says. Burning coal,
natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat is the
single largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions,
according to the US's Environmental Protection Agency. With energy
demand projected to increase, the space in the global
carbon budget to burn such polluting fossil fuels is
increasingly squeezed as time goes on.
Power generators are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of
climate change as rising sea levels and intense droughts threaten
production. That gives policymakers yet more reason to transform
the US's energy sector, the NCA argues.
For instance, coastal barriers could be built to protect power
stations from rising sea levels, and power stations should also be
insulated protect them from extreme temperatures, it suggests.
But in some cases those tweaks won't be enough, the NCA says.
Vulnerable installations may need to be relocated, elevated, or
renovated to make them more resilient to storms and floods.
Companies should also be encouraged to abandon the traditional
nine-to-five working day where possible so employees can use power
outside of peak times - reducing the need for fossil-fuelled power
There's another good reason for the US government to implement
climate policies, according to the report: improving the nation's
Cutting transport and energy sector emissions means less air
pollution, which in turn can alleviate ailments such as asthma, the
NCA suggests. There is also a social benefit, as poorer communities
tend to be most exposed to poor air quality, it claims.
Curbing emissions could also prevent disease-carrying insects
such as mosquitoes migrating to new areas as the climate
The health implications of climate policy works both ways. A
number of policies primarily aimed at encouraging healthy living
also help reduce emissions.
For instance eating more fruit and vegetables and less red meat
means lowering the risk of heart attacks while cutting methane
emissions from agriculture (as there are fewer cows being reared).
Likewise, encouraging people out of their cars and onto their bikes
and pavements - known as "active transport" - can improve
cardiovascular fitness as well as cutting emissions, the NCA
The NCA shies away from specific prescriptions for
how the US should tackle climate change. Instead, it outlines the
broad impacts of failing to address climate change. On this point
it's clear: continued inaction is not an option if policymakers are
to build a climate resilient United States.