2022 delivered a sobering wake-up call of how much work is left to address the climate crisis. Flooding in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia killed thousands of people, drought affected millions of people in Somalia and China, and unusually severe heat waves settled over Europe and most of the US.
But we keep moving in the wrong direction. Global emissions from fossil fuel combustion and coal use hit another all-time high, triggered by resumed Covid travel and geopolitical unrest. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his year-end remarks, the world’s mutual goal of limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius “is gasping for breath.”
There is much more that can be done in 2023, and the US has a particular role to play. Historically the world’s biggest polluter, the US is finally gearing up for its biggest realignment yet on climate change. The country has a chance to slash its climate pollution and protect the population from the effects of extreme weather. And there are also actionable steps people can take in their own lives and communities to make a difference.
Here are five things the US could resolve to do in 2023:
1) Slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector
Next year has the opportunity to be a turning point in the second-biggest contributor to climate change, methane. Methane is responsible for only 30 percent of climate change, a smaller share than carbon dioxide, but it is also much more capable of trapping heat. Methane is also unique because it is not just a byproduct of burning fossil fuels is the fuel natural gas. All these factors make methane a particularly alarming climate problem, but one that is solvable in the short term.
Methane concentrations in the atmosphere reached a new peak in 2021, and are rising faster than ever. This is a problem that the US has unusual control over, because it is home to some of the world’s worst superemitters. The place to start is in the oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin, a ticking time bomb of methane emissions that’s worsening climate change.
The Biden administration has a handful of different rules to finalize next year that target this problem. Two of them come from the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management, aimed at reducing the wasted gas oil and gas producers are letting vent or burn into the atmosphere. The EPA would require companies to regularly monitor pollution coming from their oil and gas wells, as well as limit companies from burning off the excess gas. And the Bureau of Land Management rule specifically targets public and tribal lands by setting monthly limits on burning off excess gas and having operators submit a waste minimization plan with any permit application.
Another major change will be the Inflation Reduction Act’s methane fee. The fee technically does not kick in until 2024, but next year will be key to figuring out its enforcement. The law charges oil and gas operators $900 per metric ton of methane that is released, and will scale up to $1,500 by 2026.
None of these rules will mean much without proper monitoring and enforcement. But next year will also finally be a game changer in delivering better real-time data on the worst polluting offenders. A fleet of satellites, run by NASA and groups like Carbon Mapper and Environmental Defense Fund, will be up and running to capture exactly where the methane is coming from. It will provide the world’s first check on whether companies, and governments, are actually meeting the lofty pledges they’ve made on tackling methane emissions.
2. Mainstream heat pumps, induction stoves, and electric vehicles with the Inflation Reduction Act
The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Democrats in Congress this summer includes $369 billion to push American consumers and industry away from relying on fossil fuels. The utility payments in the law will ensure that renewables will be cheaper than building new coal and gas power plants. And the tax credits and rebates aim at helping consumers make the leap to renewable and energy-efficient technologies. Some of these technologies are familiar, like rooftop solar and insulation, but some will be newer to Americans, including heat pumps, induction stoves, and plug-in electric vehicles.
The law will help lower the cost of the machines for some Americans by thousands of dollars. So next year, hopefully the same products will become mainstream. The mainstreaming of heat pumps and induction stoves will depend in large part on the implementation of the IRA’s incentives, along with successful marketing to consumers.
Within the Biden administration, agencies will be responsible for coming up with the rules and guidance to oversee the billions of dollars available under the law. The White House also has a dedicated site to unpack the available consumer credits. But implementation will also depend on states, which are responsible for distributing most of the law’s programs. For example, it will be up to states to carry out the law’s investments in cleaning up abandoned oil wells and rebate programs, and other programs like training contractors in the newest energy-efficient technology.
3. Take extreme heat as seriously as the cold
We learned some important lessons about the power grid this year. After repeated close calls around the country this year during high demand times, California and Texas narrowly averted mass power outages only when consumers helped to reduce the load on the grid, through small actions like changing the thermostat.
These events averted mass blackouts during unusual heat waves. If the power went out, millions could have been exposed to potentially dangerous temperatures. Everyone has different tolerances to heat, and in a heat wave, the elderly tend to be the most vulnerable well before the thermostat hits triple digits.
But heat tends to get overlooked in US policy response, even as it becomes a bigger and more likely catastrophe from climate change. Historically, the US has managed to do better when it comes to helping people get through the winter. The vast majority of states have policies that prohibit power shutdowns during a winter freeze. Most states also require heating for multifamily homes. But the policy governing cooling in the summer is a patchwork that lets the most vulnerable slip through the cracks. Federal buildings, housing, and prisons have standards for heat, but no guarantee of AC. And only a handful of states have any kind of requirements that utilities keep the power on during a heat wave, according to data compiled by the Energy Justice Lab of Indiana University and shared with Vox.
The nation does not have an accurate picture of just what the lack of any coherent cooling strategy costs the public. Some low-income consumers have to choose between turning on the AC or buying food. For some, it means utilities have cut off their power for falling behind on an unpaid bill, even in life-threatening heat.
There are reasonable policy measures that could prevent casualties in a heat wave. One is protecting people from having their electricity unexpectedly cut off due to an unpaid bill. Another is to ensure a stable power grid during a heat wave so the power doesn’t go out, by investing in redundancy in the grid and investing in smart meters that communicate between the customer and the utility.
These are small steps that finally take the heat as seriously as the cold.
4. Deliver on global climate financing
The US still hasn’t delivered on its original Paris climate agreement pledge in 2015 to deliver $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund. The fund is meant to help with clean energy financing in developing countries, in recognition of rich countries’ lopsided blame for causing climate change. While Biden secured $1 billion from Congress this year, it is unclear where the remaining $2 billion will come from, especially given Republican control of the House next year.
The US has other obligations on top of the Green Climate Fund. Biden also pledged $11 billion to developing countries. That’s on top of the White House’s announcements of joint energy partnerships with South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the EU. Some of this funding can come from agencies’ discretionary budget, but Biden will need to depend on Congress for the rest.
The US also has a new kind of climate commitment to deliver on. At the recent international climate conference in Egypt, the world committed for the first time to recognize the loss and damages suffered by developing countries for a crisis they played a negligible role in creating.
The US has long been wary of agreeing to pay for any losses and damages, worried it will open up a flood of lawsuits and claims against the world’s historically biggest polluter, but did agree to a basic framework in Egypt. It’s not clear yet what that will translate into dollars.
5. Get personal and political
In 2023, Americans will have more personal control over the kind of carbon footprint they have than ever before. They’ll be able to take control over the “mini fossil fuel plants” people run in their homes every day for their heating, cooking, and driving.
The incentives available under the Inflation Reduction Act will finally make it more financially affordable to go electric. There’s money for rooftop solar; electric vehicles, clothes dryers, stoves, and ovens; heat pumps for heating, cooling, and hot water; electrical panels and wiring. The law also includes programs that cover the costs of insulation and weatherization to cut a building’s energy usage.
It’s also important to get outside the mindset that the only impact you can have on climate change is in the ways you consume, eat, and live. There’s more you can do. Action can mean thinking about your identities, your workplace, your networks, and your privileges, but also, a little more abstractly, understanding what kinds of action lead to policy change. All this will help you identify the appropriate community to link up with. In other words: You can always do more by not acting alone.