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Future Of Novel Environmental Protection Efforts Faces Key Tests In 2020

Efforts by lawmakers, environmentalists, companies and others to develop and deploy novel methods to reduce pollution and protect the environment face key tests in 2020, including the outcome of the presidential election and the effect of EPA’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

This week, Inside EPA’s Environment Next is featuring exclusive coverage from our Outlook 2020 report on the most pressing issues in environmental protection for the new year. Environment Next’s coverage focuses on innovative policy approaches, public-private partnerships and the potential for major overhauls to how EPA does business as a result of some of the significant events occurring this year.

Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy, including interviews, in-depth reporting and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary programs and government action outside EPA’s orbit.

Our Outlook coverage starts with environmentalists’ efforts to leverage international environmental agreements in order to force new action within the United States, either by the federal government or individual companies:

Environmentalists Eye Global Pacts To Pressure U.S. Sustainability Actions
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other major environmental groups plan this year to push for aggressive global agreements among countries and industries on sustainability efforts including tackling climate change and biodiversity, in a bid to pressure the U.S. government and companies to adopt similarly stringent programs domestically.

That includes the Paris climate agreement, which WWF Vice President of Private Sector Engagement Sheila Bonini says the group will push to strengthen in 2020, as well as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “[T]he state of the planet is declining in every measure,” requiring much stronger action than world governments have pledged so far, Bonini told Environment Next in a recent interview.

Climate is a top priority for those efforts, Bonini said, with pressure campaigns likely to focus on EPA and states’ climate policy as well as private firms to expand their voluntary efforts. But it is far from the only area where WWF and its allies are hoping to exert pressure. For instance, they are touting biodiversity initiatives like combatting deforestation, even though such projects pose a tougher challenge than reaching consensus on goals for reducing GHGs, Bonini says. “But we’re working on it,” she adds.

Yet even as the private sector continues to embrace voluntary GHG cuts and other sustainability goals, the 2020 election figures to be the most decisive factor in what environmental protection looks like in the new decade. Climate change has emerged as the signature environmental issue for the presidential race, and most Democrats have put forward plans that would go well beyond prior attempts to regulate GHGs, including government-wide efforts to decarbonize all sectors of the U.S. economy:

Democratic Presidential Candidates’ GHG Plans Rely On Novel Policies
Several Democratic presidential candidates’ plans for tackling climate change including a host of novel and aggressive policy proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with environmentalists seeing the election as prime opportunity to push strict progressive strategies including the Green New Deal (GND).

Environment Next has profiled the environmental platforms of more than a dozen candidates in the 2020 election, highlighting the Democratic contenders’ near-universal promises to cut the country’s GHG emissions to zero through a massive switch away from fossil fuels in the power and transportation sectors.

Many of those candidates have based their promises on the GND, and environmentalists say that even though that agenda remains controversial on the national stage, voters have reacted positively enough to its individual planks that they expect it to remain a fixture in the race even after the primary winds down and a Democratic nominee begins running directly against President Donald Trump.

“Voters are saying that climate is a top priority for them, which has never happened before. . . . Even when Congress was considering climate legislation a decade ago, we didn’t see this kind of demand for it. This is a sea change, and I think we’re seeing that in terms of candidates coming out with comprehensive climate plans across the board,” Nathaniel Keohane, a vice president at Environmental Defense Fund Action and former special assistant to President Barack Obama, told Environment Next.

At EPA itself, the agency is starting the run-up to its 50th birthday on Dec. 2 under the agenda “EPA at 50: Progress for a Stronger Future,” focused on reductions in air, water and other forms of pollution since its founding in 1970:

EPA Faces Competing Calls On Agenda For Upcoming 50th Anniversary
As EPA launches a year-long public campaign to mark its upcoming 50th anniversary it is facing competing calls on whether to issue any major policies as part of the effort, with deregulatory proponents urging the agency to solidify a new rulemaking method that could encourage weaker standards while environmentalists seek strict new rules.

But the policy significance of that milestone is a matter of harsh debate both outside EPA, where environmental groups are using it as a rallying cry to oppose Trump administration rollbacks, and even among its staff.

After Administrator Andrew Wheeler called for suggestions on how to celebrate the anniversary, he got responses -- reviewed by Inside EPA -- such as “restore science at EPA.” Those suggestions are seen as a direct attack on what environmentalists and others describe as efforts launched by former Trump agency chief Scott Pruitt and continued by Wheeler to limit regulators’ use of public-health information for rulemakings while increasing industry influence on the administrative process.

Finally, EPA, other federal agencies, environmentalists and the private sector are all ramping up their focus on plastic waste as an area of concern, underscoring the potential for private action and public-private partnerships to set the agenda for environmental protection in the coming year:

Public-Private Campaigns Seen As Focus Of Bid To Target Plastic Waste
Federal agencies, lawmakers, private industry and environmental groups are eyeing joint campaigns to fight increasing water pollution and other adverse impacts of excessive plastic waste in 2020, with efforts such as boosting recycling, cutting the use of unneeded disposables, and enacting programs to remove waste from waters.

The multifaceted efforts to combat plastic waste highlight a growing trend toward collaboration in environmental protection, as government officials and private entities all focus their attention on a common goal even without a unified regulatory regime in place.

At the federal level, those efforts include a series of pending bills that would require manufacturers to bolster their waste-processing capacity, ban certain single-use plastics and step up interagency and international coordination on the issue; EPA’s “Trash Free Waters” program aimed at capturing plastic debris from domestic waterways; and the Department of Energy’s newly announced research initiative into ways to boost recycling through improvements in manufacturing and end-of-life handling for plastic goods.

Meanwhile, industry is in the midst of its own push to make plastics more easily recyclable, including potential breakthroughs by a major oil firm into recycling forms of the material that were previously seen as either impossible or financially impractical to recover. And environmental groups are weighing how far to go in calls to cut back use of the material as packaging and in single-use forms like disposable drinking straws.

Keep reading Environment Next for coverage of the latest developments in environmental policy and protection, whether it comes from the federal government, state and local authorities, private actors, or cooperation among all three.