Overdue carbon rules: What have we been waiting for?

Overdue carbon rules: What have we been waiting for?

June 3rd, 2014 in Opinion Times

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy gestures after signing new emission guidelines.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Monday's announcement of new federal carbon pollution standards for existing power plants is long awaited, long overdue and almost certainly not enough.

That said, the proposed rules announced by President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, are a critical part of what we must do to reduce carbon pollution that both causes climate change and threatens our health.

The standards call for an overall U.S. reduction in carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Nationally, we have a head start because power plants, which generate one-third of U.S. carbon emissions, already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005. That means we are about halfway toward the goal, and it happened in part because natural gas and other alternatives emerged as less costly options for utilities and electric users.

The EPA estimates the new rules will cost the economy up to $8.8 billion annually but will lead to benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion, primarily by preventing premature deaths and mitigating respiratory diseases. Critics complain the rules will drive up electricity costs, but EPA forecasts that the rules will increase overall energy efficiency, leading to lower electricity bills when the program is fully implemented in 2030.

From the global standpoint, however, the picture is not so good. The rule will not, on its own, lower greenhouse gas pollution enough to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change. What it will do, in combination with other regulations, is allow the United States to meet its commitment to the United Nations to cut carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020 and press other major polluting countries -- particularly China and India -- to follow suit. Certainly without us on board, China and India have no reason to be pressured.

The Tennessee Valley Authority already has proven that these reductions can be made. TVA ranked No. 5 among U.S. utilities in carbon dioxide emissions with 77.4 million tons released in 2012 but now is on pace to cut its carbon releases as it phases out more coal plants. TVA data indicates the utility cut carbon emissions from 2005 to 2013 by more than 30 percent and expects to cut another 10 percent by 2020. TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson said Monday that all those cuts were made without consideration of carbon calculations. Instead, human health pollution factors and cost of efficiency to keep rates affordable were the drivers in those decisions.

The trouble is, the new rules -- which are not one-size-fits-all and will have different impacts from state to state -- still face an uphill battle with the shifting winds of future -- mostly partisan -- political will.

Although Obama doesn't need a vote in Congress to approve the plan, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have already vowed to try to block them. Then there is the fact that the plan relies heavily on governors agreeing to develop plans to meet the federal standard. If Republican governors refuse to go along, as was the case with Obama's expansion of Medicaid, the EPA can create its own plan for a state. But the specifics of how EPA could force a state to comply remain murky.

We must find a way to make this happen.

The world's nations have set a goal to limit the planet's warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial level. To meet that, studies suggest global emissions need to peak no later than 2020 and then begin to fall. Today, emissions are not falling nearly fast enough in the Western Hemisphere, and those reductions are being swamped by a rapid rise in the East. Well into the 2020s, it will still be technically possible to meet the global warming target, but the longer nations put off taking bold action, the more expensive and disruptive it will be to do so once they finally get serious.

And, yes, the global issue is very much a local issue. The Southeast disproportionately contributes to national carbon pollution levels due to its abundance of coal-fired power plants. Even in 2012 and with TVA's reductions, over 366 million tons of CO2 were emitted from about 270 coal units at 82 coal-fired power plants across the eight states in the Southeast.

And the Southeast is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We have coastlines already seeing sea level rise and coastal flooding, and our warmer-than-average annual temperatures are changing our health, tourism and farming futures.

Changing the way we power our homes and businesses isn't just about whether we breathe better or whether our power bill is affordable. It is, in fact, everything about our future.