Earth Day Is a Day to Celebrate the Environmental Progress We’ve Made in Recent Years

by nuclearafrica

Earth Day each year marks an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a society. Personally, I find it an exhilarating time to be part of the U.S. environmental movement that birthed Earth Day out of outrage over rampant use of toxic chemicals.

To address the global environmental and equity crisis of our generation, in the past three years Congress has passed two significant pieces of legislation advanced by the Biden administration that contain the most climate funding in the nation’s history: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). However, Congress has stubbornly refused to pass legislation that slashes carbon emissions directly. Instead, they have left much of that work to the discretion of the administration, which can only do so much without the say-so of Congress (aka statutory authority).

Is this recent progress significant? Absolutely. Recent executive action taken by the administration, alongside record-breaking milestones and these two pieces of legislation deserve celebrating.

There also are places where we must keep working alongside the public sector to make change that reflects the true scale of the problem. Let’s dig in.

Progress cutting transportation emissions

Transportation is the biggest source of global warming emissions in the US, as well as a major source of dangerous air pollution. Building a cleaner transportation system—one that includes electric vehicles (EVs)—is vital to meeting our climate goals and improving public health and equity.

The EPA issued new standards this year to cut climate-endangering emissions from new passenger cars and light trucks. In concert with state policies and the growing global shift to electrification, these policies should help get more zero-emission vehicles on the road.  

As these new standards bring cleaner vehicles to the market, investments and tax incentives emerging from BIL and IRA will make it easier for US drivers to buy and get around in an EV. That includes tax incentives for buying EVs, whether new or, for the first time, used. It also includes major investments in building new EV charging stations across the country, both in communities and along highway corridors. While EVs are already cleaner over their lifetime than gasoline vehicles, that advantage gets bigger as the grid they’re charged on gets cleaner. Policies to speed up the EV transition go hand in hand with policies to power our electrical system with fewer fossil fuels and more renewable energy.

Of course, investments in vehicle electrification are only part of the solution; people need more clean, accessible ways to get around. Though the climate impact of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is mixed, one of the clearest wins is that it invests over $200 billion in funding to support public transportation and rail, breaking with decades of federal underinvestment in these modes​.

While there’s much more work to be done cutting pollution from the transportation system, these policies move us in the right direction.

Progress protecting people from pollutants

The EPA also has been busy issuing new rules aimed at protecting people from exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals.

Standards for one of the most common pollutants—fine particulate matter (PM2.5)—had lagged for years as the evidence of the harms of this pollution mounted. In February, EPA issued new, stronger PM2.5 rules.

Facilities that handle dangerous chemicals pose a risk to workers and neighbors. In March, EPA finalized a new Risk Management Program rule to minimize the impact of chemical disasters.

This month, for the first time, EPA issued enforceable standards to reduce the danger of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, along with funding for water testing and treatment.  And EPA has finally named PFOA and PFOS as hazardous chemicals, which will help rein in their use and reduce contamination.

EPA is also addressing the threat of ethylene oxide with long-awaited new rules to reduce ethylene oxide from commercial sterilizers and emissions from chemical manufacturing facilities.

Since 2021, EPA also has introduced a range of new rules that will improve public health. These include standards for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, a strong lead and copper rule supported by funding for water system upgrades authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a ban on chlorpyrifos contamination in food, and a long-awaited ban on asbestos. They’ve also issued a new Equity Action Plan that can help incorporate cumulative impacts into future rulemaking.  

It’s also encouraging to see efforts to protect expert federal staff from political interference, making sure we can all benefit from the best available science. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has introduced a model scientific integrity policy and agencies across government are at work designing their own scientific integrity guidelines. Meanwhile the Office of Personnel Management has finalized new civil service rules to ensure federal employees are protected from politically motivated firings.

None of these rules is perfect on its own, but taken together and combined with other complementary policies, they represent a serious effort to address the biggest threats to our health, our ecosystem, and our climate.

Progress investing in clean energy, clean air, and environmental justice

In 2022, Congress passed President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—the biggest climate action in US history. The legislation is galvanizing the nation’s transition to clean energy by helping to clean up our electricity, transportation, and industry, and make energy use in homes and buildings cleaner and more energy efficient.

So far, more than $53 billion has already been allocated from the law to advance environmental justice, deliver cleaner air, and tackle climate pollution. This includes $6.9 billion for tackling climate pollution, $270 million for cleaner air, and $45.7 billion for environmental justice.

When it comes to environmental justice, the IRA, together with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provide $126 billion for more than 28 federal programs that are helping to reduce global warming emissions and disproportionate amounts of pollution in low-income communities and communities of color. The legislation is also helping to reduce the unequal household energy burdens and climate risks that these communities bear.

Progress stalling fossil fuel expansion

In January, the Biden administration correctly delayed a decision on whether to approve a massive new fossil gas export terminal in southwest Louisiana pending a review of its potential climate and environmental impacts. UCS believes that proper accounting of these harms will make it clear that this project, and others like it in the United States, are not in the public interest.

With the climate crisis rapidly worsening and given long-standing environmental injustices from the production and use of fossil fuels, the US must chart a path toward a fast, fair phaseout of polluting fuels and ramp up clean energy solutions.

Progress cutting power sector carbon emissions

The power sector is the second largest source of global warming emissions in the U.S. and also a major contributor of traditional air pollution. We may see progress in this area very soon because next week the administration is expected to finalize a regulation that requires existing coal-fired power plants—the largest carbon emitter in the power sector—to significantly reduce their carbon emissions and future natural gas plants to release limited amounts of carbon.

The administration will release a regulation limiting carbon and other pollutants from existing natural gas plants later.

Since the key to reducing U.S. global warming emissions is powering everything, including vehicles and buildings, with clean electricity from the grid, these rules are critical.

Progress transitioning to renewable energy

In 2024, US renewables likely will set lots of new records. The US solar industry likely will handily blow past its (record-breaking) 2023 tally for installations in a single year. Solar is breaking records for generation almost daily, from coast to coast and in between, and wind has been notching up its own records.

Offshore wind will have a banner year in 2024, with two new projects that will bring the US total to enough capacity to generate the equivalent of more than a half million Northeast households’ electricity use.

Solar and wind together, which in spring 2023 hit a new high for portion of total US monthly generation, may break their combined record, too. Add in hydroelectric and geothermal power, and renewable energy could account for fully one-quarter of US electricity—double what they contributed a decade ago!

Where does all this action put us?

There is no question there is much more that must be done, not only to achieve the United States’ climate goals of cutting economywide heat-trapping emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050, but also to further reduce traditional pollution.

Let’s celebrate the truly incredible progress that has been made to date. The progress we’ve seen from the administration and federal agencies in recent years was a long time coming, the result of thousands of people working together to make significant, lasting environmental change.

This administration has made historic progress on multiple fronts, and traditional environmental groups, science organizations, and environmental justice communities are exercising their individual and collective power in ways not previously seen. As a former federal official and a current advocate for environmental justice, I am glad to pause and take a beat to acknowledge how far we’ve come before we put the pedal back to the metal.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?
Update Required Flash plugin