President Obama is pushing for stronger regulations to cut domestic CO2 emissions, and attempts to position the United States as a leader in international climate negotiations. Implementation of Obama’s Climate Action Plan is necessary to ensure US credibility in future international climate negotiations, but barriers towards climate policy change persist in the US Congress and in fossil-fuel intensive states.

By Dragana Davidovic


  • More natural gas for electricity production has reduced US emissions since 2007
  • Obama is a strong proponent for ambitious federal climate policy
  • Implementation of the Clean Power Plan crucial for US credibility in future international climate negotiations


Global Carbon Atlas,

Leiserowitz, Anthony et al. (2014), ‘Climate Change in the American Mind’, Report, Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, October, available at

Based on the new (2015) book The Domestic Politics of Global Climate: Key Actors in International Climate Cooperation edited by Guri Bang, Arild Underdal and Steinar Andresen and the chapter The United States: Obama's push for climate policy change by Guri Bang. 

Key facts

The United States contributes 14 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions according to 2013-estimates from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). This makes the US the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (with 5233MtCO2 emitted in 2013), only surpassed by China (with 9977MtCO2). Per capita CO2 emissions are 16 tons per year, and the population is 320 million citizens. New technologies for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made possible a dramatic increase in domestic natural gas extraction since 2009, and resulted in a replacement of coal with less-carbon intensive natural gas in US power plants. In 2013, however, coal-fired generation increased with 4.8 percent while natural gas generation fell by 10 percent as a result of a rise in natural gas prices.

Coal is an abundant energy resource in the US, with a strong traditional role in producing low-priced electricity. In 2014, 39 percent of total US electricity production was generated from coal and some states relied more than 80 percent on coal for electricity. In addition to its abundant coal reserves the US has recently become a large oil producer. Both shale oil and shale gas resources are produced in large volumes at relatively low costs, revolutionizing US oil and natural gas production. In the short term, a transition from coal to natural gas would reduce US emissions due to the relatively lower carbon density of natural gas. But it could also postpone a transition to renewable energy resources. The US is among the world’s top three investors in renewable energy sources, but only about 10 percent of the domestic energy mix is renewable. Oil accounts for a 36 percent share, followed by natural gas (27 percent), coal (19 percent) and nuclear (8 percent).

Policy Supply and Demand

In June 2013 President Obama presented the Climate Action Plan containing three main elements: to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions, to prepare the country for climate change impacts and to be a leader in international climate change cooperation. As a follow-up, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in August 2015. The CPP sets state-specific limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005-levels by 2030. States will be responsible for developing plans for how to fulfill their individual target.

While the Obama administration has pushed for stronger regulations to cut CO2 emissions, public support for strong climate policies like the CPP varies. In step with economic recovery after the financial crisis, public opinion has become more positive. Recent polls show a 54 percent support for climate policy action, with 72 percent among Democrats and 46 percent among Republicans supporting the Clean Power Plan (Leiserowitz et al. 2014). The level of support also varies significantly between fossil fuel-intensive states and states with weaker economic ties to fossil fuel energy.

Drivers and Barriers

Since 2013, President Obama has actively pushed for policy change, and switched policymaking strategy from legislative action to executive action – developing new carbon regulations through existing law and thereby circumventing the Congress. While this new strategy has met strong resistance and created polarization between political adversaries, it has successfully initiated new carbon-cutting regulations in the power sector. Political barriers towards policy change prevail in the US Congress and in states with fossil fuel-intensive economies. In particular, Republicans and lawmakers representing fossil fuel-intensive states with fossil fuel-dependent industries have displayed the strongest resistance to emissions regulations such as the CPP.

At the international level, the US and China made a joint statement in 2014 to announce their intention to reduce GHG emissions levels and increase the share of renewable energy in both countries. The United States pledged to cut GHGs 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

The Future

High reliance on fossil fuels in electricity generation is likely to continue, especially given the country’s huge natural gas resources. Further reductions in CO2 emissions can be expected if regulations under the Clean Power Plan are implemented. However, states are responsible for implementation, and some states have strong incentives to delay or refuse implementation of the CPP. Some states have even sued the EPA in an effort to throw out the CPP. Without these regulations, a rise in natural gas prices could result in a transition back to coal, as indeed happened to a certain extent in 2013. Full implementation of the CPP is also crucial for fulfillment of pledged emissions cuts, and without it the US has no domestic plan and would risk losing its credibility in future climate negotiations.

While Obama is a strong pusher for federal climate policy change and has positioned the US as a leader in international climate negotiations, the next US president could potentially reverse the CPP and ditch the Climate Action Plan. This would negatively affect US credibility in international climate negotiations. The presidential election in 2016 will be crucial in this respect.