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Science & Environment | U.S. News

Four environmental legacies President Obama gave the U.S.

Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 20, 2017, 11:48 AM - As U.S. President Barack Obama bids a formal farewell to The White House, scientists and environmentalists question what the next four years will mean for environmental policy and climate change progress.

The apprehension lies on a handful of factors leading up to President Donald Trump’s inauguration – most notable, arguably, is his choice of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, previously Attorney General of Oklahoma (one of the U.S.’s largest oil and natural gas producers), comes from a background mired in ties to the fossil fuel industry.

It's also Trump’s publicly shared stance on climate change that caused stir within the scientific community -- one that alludes to years of research as null and void.

Eight years ago, the general mindset among American voters wasn’t all too far from Trump’s take on the state of the environment.

In the 2008 presidential election, climate change was ranked the 11th most important issue out of 12 options, according to a Gallup poll. Yet Obama worked to fundamentally reshape America’s policy and prioritization of climate change initiatives, creating some of the most significant contributions to the cause than any of his predecessors.

Ahead of the end of his final term, Obama affirmed, repeatedly, his stance on climate change – going as far as to write on the issue as part of his final statements in office.

When asked about his contribution to climate change action, Obama says it might just be one of his most gratifying moments in office.

”If 20, 30, 50 years from now, we look back and we say ‘we dealt with this in a serious way,’ I’ll be happy to say that that was one of my proudest achievements,” Obama said in an interview with CNN. “Even though I didn’t do it by myself.”

Though his contributions stretch wide and far, here are four indelible environmental legacies Barack Obama has left behind for the U.S. and, inevitably, the world.

INAUGURATION DAY FORECAST: See how conditions fare on Capitol Hill.

1. The introduction of historic fuel-efficiency standards

Near the end of his first term in office, Obama announced a move to almost double the fuel efficiency for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. Based on previous standards set by the Obama Administration, this meant that fuel economy would increase from roughly 29.7 miles per gallon (7.92 litres/100 km) to 54.5 mpg (4.32 litres/100 km.)

“Simply put, this ground-breaking program will result in vehicles that use less gas, travel farther, and provide more efficiency for consumers than ever before—all while protecting the air we breathe and giving automakers the regulatory certainty to build the cars of the future here in America,” said transportation secretary Ray LaHood in a statement from The White House.

In partnership with more than a dozen major auto makers, the Obama Administration’s fuel economy standards look to cut greenhouse emissions from light-duty trucks and cars in half by 2025, decreasing emissions by 6 billion metric tons over the course of the program, which is more CO2 than the U.S. emitted as an entirety in 2010.

This economic and environmental move also came with a set of incentives to encourage the auto industry to adopt advanced and environmentally-conscious technologies – including those required for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and natural gas vehicles.

In the words of Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, “[t]here is not another air-pollution-control strategy that we know of that will produce as substantial, cost-effective, and expeditious emissions reductions.”

Watch Below: Obama Administration unveils plans to increase fuel efficiency standards by 2025.

2. The creation of the largest marine reserve in the world

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, off the coast of Hawaii, is the world’s largest marine reserve. It held the same title back in 2006, when then-president George W. Bush first created it – but at only a quarter of its current size. Naturally, as time wore on the monument lost its title, dropping down to the 10th spot.

On the tail end of his time in office, President Obama expanded the UNESCO World Heritage site fourfold, growing it from 360,000 square kilometres to 1,510,000 square kilometres. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is famously home to more than 7,000 species of wildlife – a handful of which are endangered, while 25 per cent cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

By harnessing the Antiquities Act, a 100-year-old piece of legislature signed by Theodore Roosevelt, Obama has preserved more land of environmental, cultural, or historical significance than any other U.S. president in history – a number of acres that measures in the hundreds of millions.

Watch Below: President Obama delivers a statement about the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument at Midway Atoll.

3. A significant last-minute donation to climate change action

Days before President Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration wrote a cheque to the Green Climate Fund, totalling $500 million.

The international organization (which operates under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, currently the only widely accepted international climate treaty, and the Paris Agreement) supports non-industrialized nations in the transition to clean energy adaptation. Preceding President Trump’s succession, the move was a bold one. The 45th president of the U.S. has publicly shared plans to cut all U.S. funding for climate change initiatives.

The Obama Administration’s latest cheque brings the U.S.’s total contributions to the Green Climate Fund up to $1 billion.

Watch Below: In the Weekly Address, President Obama discusses doubling clean energy funding..

4. Protection of the Arctic and Atlantic seaboards from oil and gas exploration, in partnership with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

2016 wrapped up with a significant partnership between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Obama. Weeks ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Obama invoked provision 12(a) of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, calling for a permanent ban on offshore drilling for oil and gas along more than 100 million areas of the Atlantic Seaboard and the Arctic.

The White House made the announcement in conjunction with Trudeau, who also blocked all future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing in Canada’s Arctic waters.

The ban will be reviewed every five years by way of an environmental assessment, but according to a report from Politico, there’s no language in Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act permitting future presidents to revoke the ban on offshore areas from future leasing. Though fossil fuel advocates argue otherwise, for now, it looks like this legacy in environmental policy could be an indefinite one.

Watch Below: Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama at one of their first joint press conferences together during the Canada State visit.

Based on Trump’s campaign promises alone, the world has gone to lengths to preserve progress made in recent years.

And undoubtedly, Obama’s legacy has set the U.S. up to be a world leader in its environmental initiatives. But for climate change progress – not unlike the weather – there’s much uncertainty about what the next four years will bring under the incumbent.

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT: For more stories like this, visit the Science & Nature section, here.

Related: The Weather Network's original 5-part series on Donald Trump vs. Climate Change, below.

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