Sustainable Energy and Climate Change


Home heating and cooling is essential to the health and safety of older adults. Affordable energy services are crucial, and yet the ways in which people produce and consume much of the world’s energy cannot be sustained. Scientists overwhelmingly urge immediate attention to current trends in energy supply and use. The National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, reported in 2010 that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.”

Curbing climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, while also ensuring secure, clean, and affordable energy, is among the most important long-term policy challenges. In general terms, the goal is “affordable and sustainable energy”; this is defined as the provision of energy in a way that meets current needs but does not compromise future generations’ ability to meet their needs. Achieving sustainability will require fundamental change in the energy industry and could cost consumers trillions of dollars over the next 30 years. Ignoring these challenges does nothing to resolve them and potentially exacerbates the larger problem. One study predicts that inaction, with its subsequent costs, would be at least five times more expensive than some of the proposed solutions.

Clean Power Plan—the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a set of regulations dubbed the “Clean Power Plan” (CPP) aimed at reducing the amount of carbon emissions from power plants. The CPP establishes national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants and gives states flexibility in developing implementation plans to meet those goals while still mandating reduction targets for each state. Under the plan, by 2030, carbon emissions from power plants would be reduced on average by 32 percent relative to 2005 levels. However, individual state goals vary widely.

The proposed regulations give states incentives for early investment in reducing emissions, encourage states to incorporate energy efficiency as an emissions reduction strategy, and require states to consult people with low incomes, members of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, including tribal populations, in developing their plans. Twenty-four states have challenged the CPP in court, claiming it exceeds federal authority and would result in higher electricity prices. In February 2016, the US Supreme Court issued a stay of the plan that will remain in effect pending further judicial review (see Chapter 9, Livable Communities—Transportation Reform, Funding, and Financing, for more about climate change).

Sustainable Energy and Climate Change: Policy

Protecting the environment

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Policymakers should make a national priority of developing sustainable energy policy that ensures an affordable supply of reliable energy and establishes the US as the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling the problem of climate change.

In developing sustainable energy policies, policymakers should:

  • ensure that all consumers can afford energy to meet their basic needs;
  • ensure that all options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions comply with environmental regulations, are cost-effective, and are integrated into a least-cost policy framework;
  • ensure that any national or state program for capping carbon emissions through an auction or sale of carbon allowances uses a significant share of the generated revenues to compensate consumers for energy and other price increases;
  • ensure that any proceeds from allowances provided to local utilities and other entities are used to benefit ratepayers and result in commensurate reductions in residential utility bills;
  • seek to implement policies across all relevant sectors of the economy;
  • mitigate the impact of any price increases on those least able to afford energy;
  • ensure that consumers with low incomes who lack the financial resources to reduce or eliminate their use of carbon-based energy have access to weatherization and related energy efficiency programs as well as clean-energy technologies;
  • ensure all policies are transparent, consistent, and equitable;
  • prioritize policies that lower energy costs by improving energy efficiency, recognizing that these policies are generally less expensive to implement and less of a burden on consumers;
  • provide incentives to conserve energy, while also recognizing that market imperfections exist in the energy sector and, as such, that simple reliance on higher prices as a means to reduce demand can impose unnecessarily high costs on consumers; and
  • ensure that any new regulations include compliance deadlines long enough to allow the creation of least-cost responses that avoid substantial rate increases for utility ratepayers.