With the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules limiting carbon pollution from the nation’s electricity sector, you’ve no doubt been hearing a lot of industry outrage about “Obama’s War on Coal.”
Don’t believe it.
Despite the passionate rhetoric from both sides of the climate divide, the proposed rules are very moderate — almost remedial. The rules grade the states on a curve, giving each a tailored emissions target meant to be attainable without undue hardship. For states that have already taken action to curb greenhouse gasses, and have more reductions in the works, they will be easy to meet. California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, are all several steps ahead of the proposed federal requirements — former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter told Colorado Public Radio that he expects the state to meet the proposed federal emissions target for 2030 in 2020, a decade ahead of schedule. This isn’t to say that Colorado has particularly clean power — our state has the 10th most carbon intensive electricity in the country, with about 63% of it coming from coal — but we’ve at least started the work of transitioning.
Furthermore, many heavily coal dependent states that have so far chosen to ignore the imperatives of climate change (e.g. Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky) must only attain single-digit percentage reductions, and would be permitted to remain largely coal dependent all the way up to 2030. Roger Pielke Jr. and others have pointed out that in isolation, the new rules would be expected to reduce the amount of coal we burn by only about 15%, relative to 2012 by 2020. By 2030, we might see an 18% reduction in coal use compared to 2012. Especially when you compare these numbers to the 25% reduction in coal use that took place between 2005 and 2012, and the far more aggressive climate goals that even Republicans were advocating for just two presidential elections ago, it becomes hard to paint the regulations as extreme. Instead, they look more like a binding codification of plans that already exist on the ground, and a gentle kick in the pants for regulatory laggards to get on board with at least a very basic level of emissions mitigation.
So, in isolation, there’s a limited amount to get either excited or angry about here. Thankfully, the EPA’s rules will not be operating in isolation!
We should begin levying a modest carbon tax, in the range of $5 to $25/ton of CO2e.
The tax must be applied to the fossil fuels used in electricity generation (coal and natural gas). Ideally it should also be applied to gasoline, diesel, natural gas used outside the power sector, and fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, but those are less important for the moment.
New electricity generation resources must be allowed to compete economically with the operation of existing carbon-intensive facilities, and fuel costs must not be blindly passed through to consumers without either rigorous regulatory oversight, or utilities sharing fuel price risk.
Carbon tax revenues should be spent on emissions mitigation, providing reliable, low-cost financing for energy efficiency measures and a standard-offer contract with modest performance-based returns for new renewable generation.
Over time the carbon price should be increased and applied uniformly across all segments of the economy, with the eventual integration of consumption based emissions footprinting for imported goods.
Bill McKibben rants eloquently about the need for more than individual actions to combat climate change — it’s a systemic problem, the solutions to which can only come with changes to the systems we are all embedded in. Changing your light bulbs and riding a bike are the easy parts. Organizing a devastating political campaign against the fossil fuel interests is much more challenging, and utterly necessary.
NRDC blogs about a new study on federal use of discount rates in calculation of carbon costs, which suggests we grossly underestimate the present value of reducing emissions. Did you even know that the feds had put an internal price on CO2? They behave as if it costs $21/ton to emit. But that’s based on a discount rate of around 3%, which is the highest rate OMB suggests using for inter-generational costs. Part II of the very detailed NRDC post is here.
The UK has one of the world’s most aggressive building energy efficiency targets: all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016, and all new buildings to be zero carbon by 2019. They’ve got a ways to go toward realizing this goal, but they’re doing what they can to learn from other countries in the meantime. The Zero Carbon Compendium 2010 is a compilation of zero carbon building strategies and progress being made by nations all over the world. A good look at what was already possible a couple of years ago… and it’s a lot more than we’re talking about doing here today.