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Advancing an Agenda for Climate Action

In February 2006, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change released its Agenda for Climate Action, the Center’s attempt to outline an ambitious yet pragmatic approach to addressing this serious issue.

Climate change is one of the most complex issues that the world will face in this century. Because of the increasing impact of humans on the earth’s climate, decisions made in upcoming decades will significantly shape our world’s weather, geography, distribution of plant and animal life, and even human health and migration patterns.

Temperatures have risen over the last century and are expected to continue to do so at an increasing rate. Concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere have already reached levels unprecedented for hundreds of thousands of years, causing changes not only in global temperature, but also in precipitation, sea-level rise and other observable impacts throughout the world, and these changes are happening more quickly than expected. The broad consensus of established scientific experts is that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities. In addition, without significant steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, the rate and severity of these changes will increase.

According to The New York Times, further retreat of Arctic ice was observed by the Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado in September 2005. The ice retreat was the biggest since satellites began routine monitoring in 1979 and was probably the biggest in 100 years. In addition, in March 2006, “a NASA team reported that one of the greenhouse gases, ozone, which is also a component of smog, appeared to be having an outsize warming effect in the Arctic.”

Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations will require a fundamental shift from an economy based on traditional burning of fossil fuels to one based on more efficient energy production, generation and use; increased use of low-carbon energy sources; and the capture and storage of carbon from fossil fuels. Such a transition will have other benefits as well. Increasing the efficiency of United States (US) industry will improve businesses’ competitiveness at home and abroad. Reducing demand for oil is a key step in improving energy security. The use of lower-carbon energy sources will reduce air pollution and enhance public health. If approached thoughtfully, this transition can provide advantages for future economic growth, create jobs in new manufacturing and service industries, and provide support for US agriculture and forestry. Many companies and state and local governments have recognized these needs and opportunities and have begun to take action, but more is needed.

We believe that no single technology fix, no single policy instrument, and no single sector can solve this problem on its own. In order to solve this problem (and to do so without laying the burden on any one group), actions are needed throughout the economy.  Tackling climate change will require both broad and specific policies addressing a wide range of activities and sectors. Therefore, we recommend the development of an integrated national climate change strategy that combines technology development with broad policies addressing mitigation, scientific research, energy policy, economy-wide markets, and adaptation. We also identify critical steps key sectors must take in order to address their contributions to this problem, and the need for a broad international framework that includes all major emitters. It is critical that these actions begin now, though it is not necessary (or likely) that they will all happen simultaneously. 

This article outlines the 15 recommendations that comprise Pew’s Agenda.  Everything we propose in this Agenda is technically feasible to start today. Unfortunately, technically feasible and politically feasible are not the same thing. Putting this Agenda into practice will take political will and policy action. While some steps can be undertaken rather easily under existing law, many of these proposals will require legislative activity and congressional appropriations. All require government leadership and private sector commitment.* This will take time. Nonetheless, the details of the specific recommendations in this Agenda are less critical than the compelling need to get started. Further delay will only make the challenge before us more daunting and more costly.


Invest in science research to improve understanding of the climate system and causes of warming, and in technology research to stimulate innovations to reduce, avoid and sequester greenhouse gas emissions.

1.   Ensure a robust research program through the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).

In the absence of greater federal commitments to science, the CCSP has a limited ability to reduce the remaining scientific uncertainties and improve decision making with respect to climate change. Funding should be increased to allow the CCSP to complete a research infrastructure management plan, to focus on the remaining scientific uncertainties (eg. specific regional impacts, quantification of carbon storage in sinks and adaptation), and to share and integrate results.

2.   Offer long-term, stable funds—in the form of a reverse auction—to GHG-related technology research and development.

Long-term, stable funding should be available for pre-commercial research, with projects selected through a “reverse auction”[1] in which proposals for reduction projects compete on a level playing field for funding. An auction could specify technology categories as well as offer a broad competition to elicit new, as-yet-unknown technologies. Other funding alternatives include forward funding,[2] technology prizes,[3] tax rebates and public-private partnerships.

Establish mandatory limits on GHG emissions and harness market mechanisms to spur the most cost-effective reductions throughout the economy.

3.   Create a mandatory GHG reporting system as a basis for an economy-wide emissions trading program.

The first step in any domestic program to address climate change is a reliable and credible system for tracking and reporting greenhouse gas emissions. A mandatory GHG reporting program would provide a solid foundation for a future US GHG reduction program, as well as offer a basis for government assurances that companies would not be penalized for early reductions and provide an incentive to make these reductions. Most importantly, a mandatory reporting program would stimulate voluntary reductions across the entire economy. The program also would provide policymakers with a strong data-driven foundation on which to develop a comprehensive climate change strategy.

4.   Implement a large-source, economy-wide cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases.

Our ongoing work has demonstrated repeatedly that market mechanisms provide the least-cost reductions, and that the more reduction options are included, the cheaper they can be.  For this reason, we propose a large-source, economy-wide cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases. Combining technology investment with market development will provide for the most cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gases, and create a new market for GHG-reducing technologies.

Stimulate innovation across key economic sectors. While these broad efforts are critical, sector-specific actions also are needed.

5.   Transportation: Convert the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program into strengthened, tradable corporate average CO2 (or GHG) emissions standards.

Proposals for cap-and-trade programs typically leave out the transportation sector because its emissions are hard to incorporate. Yet, transportation contributes about 30 percent of all emissions, and clearly must be addressed. We suggest taking the widely criticized Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program and transforming it into a more ambitious but tradable GHG standard. As with emissions from stationary sources, creating a market for these improvements—especially in combination with increased support for low-emission vehicles and fuels—helps reduce the cost of making the necessary reductions.

6.   Manufacturing: Provide outreach and incentives to manufacturers for improve-ments in industrial efficiency and low-GHG technologies, and support the production of low-GHG products.

The industrial sector is also key, and not only because of the emissions from its factories.  This sector is responsible for the design of the energy-consuming products that we use every day. So in this sector, we believe we need incentives not just for improvements in process efficiency, but also for the manufacture of low-GHG products. 

7.   Agriculture: Raise the priority and funding levels for Farm Bill programs and other federal initiatives on carbon sequestration.

In the agriculture sector, programs have already been put into place through the Farm Bill that could encourage and evaluate opportunities for biological sequestration.  However, in order for these to be successful, they must receive proper funding and prioritization. Carbon storage also should be encouraged by including land-based sequestration offsets in a cap-and-trade program and continuing to improve techniques for quantifying and verifying these reductions. To improve energy crops’ viability and competitiveness with fossil fuels, agricultural policies should promote research on and production of biomass.

Drive the energy system toward greater efficiency, lower-carbon energy sources, and carbon capture technologies. Because energy is at the heart of this issue, we tackle this sector separately, making recommendations for each major energy source. 

8.   Coal and Carbon Sequestration: Provide funding for tests of geologic carbon sequestration and for research, development and demonstration (RD&D) projects on separation and capture technologies, in combination with advanced generation coal plants. Establish an appropriate regulatory framework for carbon storage.

Coal is a cheap and plentiful resource and will clearly play a role in US (and global) electricity generation for a long time to come.  For this reason, it is critical to find a way to capture and sequester the emissions from its combustion. Therefore, we call for: aggressive research and development on carbon separation and capture technologies in combination with advanced generation coal plants, demonstration of geologic carbon storage in a variety of settings and development of a regulatory framework for geologic sequestration. 

9.   Natural Gas: Expand natural gas transportation infrastructure and production.

Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels when combusted and is therefore an important transition fuel. We encourage the expansion of natural gas production and transportation infrastructure, as well as efficiency. 

10. Renewables: Significantly “ramp up” renewables for electricity and fuels, includ­ing an extension and expansion of the production tax credit, a uniform system for tracking renewable energy credits, and increased emphasis on biomass.

Because renewables have the potential to provide energy with little or no green-house gas emissions, we propose a longer-term extension of tax incentives for renewable fuels and electricity generation, an increased focus on biofuels and federal-level support for renewable credit-trading programs. 

11. Nuclear Power: Provide opportunities for nuclear power to play a continuing role in a future low-carbon electricity sector.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of US power generation today. To replace that 20 percent would almost certainly mean a significant increase in the use of fossil fuels, thereby increasing US emissions. For this reason, we believe we need to keep this non-emitting source in the mix. However, issues such as safety and waste storage need to be resolved.  The Pew Center supports financial incentives for “first-mover” plants, but in combination with international engagement to restructure the worldwide non-proliferation regime and a focus on the “once-through” fuel cycle, and well as on resolution of waste storage issues (including an expansion of nuclear waste R&D efforts beyond Yucca Mountain).

12. Efficient Energy Production and Distribution: Support the development and use of combined heat and power installations, distributed generation technologies and test beds for an upgraded electricity grid.

Finally, there are vast opportunities for improving efficiency on an economy-wide basis, and efficiency offers some of the least-cost reductions available. Therefore, incentives for improved efficiency in electricity production, transmission and use are also an important piece.  Policies to encourage combined heat and power (which uses the waste heat from electricity generation for industrial processes) and distributed generation (the production of electricity and heat at or close to the point of use) include net metering and incentives for state-level grid interconnection standards. These should be accompanied by wider efforts to improve the efficacy, flexibility and security of the US electricity grid.

13. Efficient Energy Usage: Reduce energy consumption through policies that spur efficiency, including appliance and equipment standards, building R&D and codes, and consumer education.

Emissions not covered by the large-source cap-and-trade program should be addressed through expanded and tightened product standards, which could be made tradable and/or converted to GHG emission standards. Policies should also encourage states to adopt enhanced or updated building codes and continue funding R&D on advanced materials and cost-reduction opportunities for on-site renewable generation.  Outreach to state and local governments could improve awareness of other efficiency opportunities and should include technical information supporting corporate greenhouse gas reduction programs and overall process efficiencies.

Begin now to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change.

14. Develop a national adaptation strategy through the Climate Change Science Program and Climate Change Technology Program, and fund development of early-warning systems for related threats.

Because none of these efforts will fully prevent all potential effects of climate change (in fact, many impacts are already being observed), we propose the development of a national adaptation strategy and the funding of early warning systems. 

Engage in negotiations to strengthen the international climate effort.

15. Review options for a new or modified agreement to ensure fair and timely action by all major emitting countries, and participate in negotiations to establish binding climate commitments consistent with domestic interests.

Finally, while the Agenda focuses on domestic actions, it also calls for greater participation by the US in international negotiations to engage all major emitters in a global solution. It is only with this broader engagement that we will be able to address climate change. 

These 15 recommendations are not the only means of achieving a lower-carbon future, but taken together, they would put the US on a climate-friendly path. They were compiled with extensive input from the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council, and the report received wide support from these companies. They too believe that it is time for the US to address climate change and that a flexible, broad-based program provides the best framework for taking action. The Center continues to reach out to develop the Agenda further and build support for pragmatic, meaningful action on this issue.

* Editor’s Note: According to, six former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency—five Republicans and one Democrat—“accused the Bush administration [on January 18] of neglecting global warming and other environmental problems…‘We need leadership, and I don’t think we’re getting it,’” said Russell Train, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, at an EPA-sponsored symposium centered around the agency’s 35th anniversary. “‘To sit back and just push it away and say we’ll deal with it sometime down the road is dishonest to the people and self-destructive.’”

[1] Unlike a traditional auction, in which buyers bid against each other to purchase an item, a “reverse auction” allows providers of goods or services to bid for the right to provide the product.  The low bidder who meets all other qualifications receives the award.

[2] Forward funding is a multiyear appropriation that remains available through the next fiscal year, and removes some of the uncertainty, delay and earmarking associated with standard appropriations processes.

[3] A technology prize grants a monetary award for a specific goal in R&D to spur innovative step-changes in technologies.  The best-known example has been the 2004 “ANSARI X PRIZE,” which was awarded for the first successful private space flight.

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President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change;
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs, 1996-1997;
Special Assistant, Senior Director for Global Environment Affairs, 1993-1996;
Director of Atmospheric Programs, Environmental Protection Agency, 1987-1993