A Few Thoughts on the New EPA Rules
I’m already fielding e-mail from friends and people I know virtually about the EPA’s proposed CO2 reduction plan for electricity plants. While I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, mostly because it was released about a half hour ago, as I type this sentence, let me point out a few things:
- The main EPA page for the proposal is here: Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule, and it has several links to the complete ruling, facts sheets, and an analysis of the regulatory impact.
- The proposal is to cut CO2 from electricity plants by 30% compared to 2005 levels. Since we’ve already seen a drop in these emissions from 2005 to 2012 of over 15%, even 30% from this one sector isn’t all that impressive, given that we’re halfway there already.
- We will see and hear endless apocalyptic howling from the fossil fuel industry and their financially and ideologically motivated minions. We’ll hear about how these rules will derail the US economy, curve your, warp your mind, and lose the war for the Allies. It will all be utter horse shit, of course, but when did such niceties stop the people who carpet bomb the US media with ads for “clean coal”?
- Don’t expect to see this plan, or whatever the political system morphs it into, go into effect right away or result in a new, massive wave of coal plant closures:
After the EPA finalizes its proposal in mid-2015, it will give states a year to design their own implementation plans. It will let states meet emission targets for power plants several ways, including through plant upgrades, switching from coal to natural gas, or by improving energy efficiency or promoting renewable energy “outside the fence,” meaning outside the plant site. That approach will give states greater flexibility in designing plans to meet the EPA’s targets.
- How much will these cuts mean, globally? In and of themselves, not much. As Brad Plumer points out:
Although carbon emissions have fallen in the United States, they’re rising quickly in the rest of the world. And that means that global average temperatures are likely to rise more than 2C over pre-industrial levels — a limit widely deemed unacceptable.
The United States can hardly tackle this problem on its own: the country is responsible for 17 percent of global carbon emissions. So even if this new EPA rule cuts emissions from power plants by the rumored 15 percent, that will still amount to just 1 percent of global emissions.
Obama administration officials, for their part, see these new rules as just one step in the ongoing international climate talks with countries like China and India. The idea is that if the United States can hit its 17 percent target by 2020, that will help push global talks forward — and they’re optimistic about further progress, citing a recent breakthrough with China to curtail hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse-gas.
Is that all feasible? It’s hard to say — no one really knows yet what future international agreements on climate change will look like. But it’s a reminder that these power plant rules certainly won’t solve global warming on their own.
- Do I really need to bust out Mr. Spreadsheet and extrapolate these CO2 emissions reductions to all sectors of all countries to show how far short of preventing 2C of warming they would leave us? The most dangerous ball of lies we’re telling ourselves right now in terms of climate change are:
- 2C is a “safe” level of warming.
- We can still avoid 2C of warming by taking steps like this 15, er, 30% cut from electricity plants.
- Because of the above two points, it’s “too late” to do anything about climate change. The growing pain and expense of climate change impacts as a function of the amount of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere is not a binary, on/off switch: Stay below X degrees of warming or Y parts per million and everything is just peachy, but cross that threshold and the world dies a fiery death. More CO2 is more pain, and each additional amount of warming will trigger an even greater increase in pain than the prior increment of warming. So even with the extremely long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 and the associated lock-in effect, the worse things get, the greater our incentive to make drastic emissions cuts.
- The US political system is so broken, so blatantly an open bazaar where corporations can buy public policy puppets like so many street hookers, that it’s hard to imagine any policy stronger than the new EPA proposal going into effect and not being killed by the next presidential administration or strangled by the purse strings controlled by the Congress. Countries like the US simply aren’t experiencing enough pain for for enough people to say to politicians, “I don’t give a rat’s ass how many fossil fueled ads you run, you’re not going to do as much about climate change as your opponent, so you don’t get my vote.” Until we reach the point of that grand civic epiphany on climate change, all we will do is greenwash and nibble around the edges of the problem.
- I am absolutely convinced the whole world, including the sleepwalking, voting-while-distracted US, will have that epiphany. It won’t happen all at once, and it won’t happen nearly soon enough, but it will happen. The only question is how much “hell and high water”, to borrow Joe Romm’s phrase, will we have locked in before that happens.
- So. How the hell do we climate communicators and, dare I say it, activists, get accelerate that awakening process? I have no bloody idea.
 See thr EPA’s U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, Table ES-2, and you’ll see that electricity generation CO2 dropped from 2,402.1 million tons/year in 2005 to 2,022.7 in 2012.
 And no, I don’t want to get into the bottomless pit of a discussion about what defines “safe”, for whom, in what time frame, etc.
Photo Credit: EPA Emissions Rules Reactions/shutterstock
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