On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a major new program to tackle climate change. The program is the biggest step ever taken by the United States; it will go a long way to dispel criticism from other nations that we don’t do our share. But the action – bold as it is compared to prior U.S. policy – now needs to be taken forward via international diplomacy. We must get other countries to implement major reductions as well.
The EPA’s program attacks the carbon emissions produced by the power plants that create electricity. Power plants here emit 39 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide, and there aren’t many power plants in total. So it makes sense to target power plants; this is where the greatest cuts can be made most efficiently. The EPA’s rule calls for the U.S. to cut greenhouse gas output 30 percent by 2030, measured from a baseline set in 2005.
A 30 percent reduction sounds daunting, and it will fall predominantly on coal-fired plants because those are the dirtiest sources of electricity. As a result, the announcement has unleashed all sorts of doom-and-gloom projections from the coal industry and from states like Kentucky that depend on coal.
But the reduction is not as drastic or as sudden as it seems, and it will not have the catastrophic effects that critics predict. First, emissions from coal-fired power plants have already fallen about 10 percent since the baseline year of 2005. The drop comes from two causes: the recession and the switch to cheap natural gas, which generates only half as much carbon dioxide as coal does when burned. In effect, using 2005 as a baseline year gives us a 10 percent head start in meeting the EPA requirement. With this head start, the U.S. now needs to achieve just a 17 percent reduction in carbon over the 16 years remaining between now and 2030. This is a gentle rate of reduction of only 1 percent per year.
Achieving the reduction is further eased by other factors. Many of the coal-fired plants in the U.S. are already approaching the end of their useful life (50 some-odd years.) They are going to be retired soon regardless of what the EPA says. Moreover, the EPA has given the states tremendous latitude in how they meet the targets. States can burn less coal. They can burn it more efficiently. They can step up conservation efforts and use less electricity. They can implement more renewable power sources like wind and solar. And – if they believe the coal industry’s hype – they can cut carbon emissions through carbon capture and sequestration technology, which has yet to be proven to work at a commercial scale.
In rough numbers, all the options that the EPA has given to the states could easily account for half a percent per year of improvement. California, for example, has had tremendous success with incentives that encourage conservation; it now uses far less energy per unit of economic activity (the equivalent of gross domestic product at the state level). California’s miracle can easily be copied by other states.
With all these options on the table, the amount of reduction that needs to come from burning less coal is probably under a half percent per year, a range that is well within the natural obsolescence rates of old, inefficient plants that will soon be shut down anyways. In other words, we’re not talking about taking functioning coal plants off-line. We’re not talking about power shortages. We’re simply talking about ensuring that the next generation of power plants we build runs cleaner than the plants of today.
The costs of transition are simply not a big deal despite the complaints spewing from the coal industry. And the public health benefits alone are substantial. Coal is a toxic fuel that injures the people who haul it out of the ground, the people who live near where it is burned, and (because of the mercury it contains) injures anyone who eats larger fish on a regular basis.
But what about the impact of the EPA’s ruling on climate change?
It’s a good start. In fact, it’s the best start ever. But it’s not nearly enough. Again, let’s do the math. The EPA’s ruling will cut total U.S. carbon emissions by a little under 7 percent. Not bad. But this is chump change relative to the global problem. The cut to U.S. emissions – about 500 million tons per year – amounts to only 3 percent of the total world spew. By itself, it’s not enough to slow climate change significantly. We have to get other countries to follow our lead. China is the world’s biggest emitter and the fastest growing. China will, unless it takes action otherwise, increase its emissions enough over the next two years to overwhelm the savings the U.S. will make over the next 16.
Fortunately, China is responding. Shortly after the EPA’s announcement, China declared that it will, for the first time in its history, set an absolute nationwide cap on carbon emissions. It’s not coming as quickly as we would like, nor will the cap be as low as we would like. But China’s announcement is proof that by stepping forward on this difficult issue, the U.S. can influence of other major emitters. And so, through cooperative action and ongoing diplomacy, we can finally begin to turn the tide.