On Monday, June 2nd, the EPA released a set of proposed regulations that would decrease CO2 emissions levels by 30% from 2005 levels. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the proposal this week, representing a broad spectrum of opinions. While reducing carbon pollution in the air is undeniably a good thing, by just how much will our emissions as a nation be reduced? What will become of our current access to cheap, abundant electricity? Will it be enough to avoid adverse effects from climate change? These are all important questions that can be difficult to discern from news headlines and opinion articles. Hopefully, this post will help to contextualize the rules, explain what they mean, and how they will affect our economy and global climate in the coming years.
What do the rules say?
The EPA has proposed a rate-based (lbs CO2 per MwH produced) cap on carbon emissions from existing power plants across the U.S. You can think of a rate-based limit as the gas mileage on a car – if your vehicle doesn’t drive a certain number of miles per gallon of fuel used, then it will not meet its emissions standards. The purpose of a rate-based limit as opposed to an absolute limit is to allow states flexibility in meeting their target. In states where coal power is more heavily-used, for example, emissions targets can still be met by offsetting the CO2 produced by older, dirtier power plants with the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, or by creating an emissions trading scheme to ensure that the net amount of emissions for the state are below the permissible amount. As long as your state is able to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you do it. Giving states flexibility, however, does not mean the end of dirty coal as we know it. As long as coal states are able to offset their emissions through other means, they can continue to put peoples’ health at risk by producing soot and coal ash along with their electricity.
How will they affect the economy?
Cries from conservative organizations over the proposed rules claim that ratepayers will bear the majority of the burden of meeting the regulations, that the entire economies of coal-dependent states like West Virginia or Wyoming will crumble, and that hundreds of thousands of American jobs will be lost to overseas competition. There are a few good reasons why these things likely won’t happen. First, the projected increase in average electric bills doesn’t amount to more than a few extra dollars a month. More importantly, however, are the employment opportunities this proposal creates. Retrofitting old power plants and installing clean energy technology, essentially “rewiring” the country to run on clean power, will create many more jobs than continuing to use dirty sources of energy will preserve. Finally, burning coal costs the US hundreds of billions of dollars per year in costs from health impacts, missed work days due to health incidents, and environmental damage (and its impacts on the economy). Switching to clean sources of energy will reduce these costs dramatically.
How will they affect the climate?
Here is where the EPA still has room for improvement. Although a 30% reduction sounds like a lot, it’s important to note that since 2005, we have already cut our CO2 emissions by about 15%. That’s already halfway towards meeting our goal. By leaving ourselves 16 years to achieve this level, we leave an awful lot of time to continue burning fossil fuels as we do today. Additionally, growing economies like China and India currently have no such plan to reduce their emissions, and they are in no position to slow down their growth rates any time soon. China has indicated it is more open to reducing carbon emissions since the release of the EPA’s rules, but developing countries would be more likely to adopt rigorous targets if the U.S. acts as a strong leader. While the proposed rules are a meaningful step in the right direction, the EPA could undoubtedly implement stronger guidelines to reducing CO2 emissions from the nation’s electric power sector. It is our hope that we as a nation and a global community can continue to strive towards the common goal of cutting greenhouse gases from our energy diet – if not for our own sake, then for the generations that follow.