How to Tackle Climate Change Head On

by Duane Nichols on December 22, 2012

How to Tackle Climate Change Head On 

From the Article by Danielle Baussan and Daniel J. Weiss, Center for American Progress, December 14th

Largely due to destruction caused by recent climate-related extreme weather events in the U.S., there is a new urgency in our nation to adopt additional carbon pollution reduction measures. In 2011 and 2012, 21 such events each caused $1 billion or more in damages. This new evidence demonstrates that our climate change problem is much more imminent and severe than previously thought. Instead of idly waiting for the next devastating storm, flood, drought or heat wave to hit, we should tackle climate change head on by further reducing our carbon pollution.

The World Bank, International Energy Agency and U.N. Environment Programme have all issued reports since the presidential election last month predicting a steep escalation in carbon pollution in the atmosphere over the coming decades. These warnings heighten the necessity of reducing carbon and the other pollutants responsible for climate change. If we don’t take action now, we will inevitably face more devastating changes to our weather, water, land, air and food supply.

The Obama administration has proposed—and should promptly finalize—a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. Additionally, it should develop, propose and promulgate a standard for existing power plants, as they are the single largest unregulated carbon pollution source, comprising 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. The Clean Air Act provides the executive authority to require such emission reductions without congressional action, which would likely be delayed or blocked considering that many congressional Republican leaders adamantly deny the existence of human-induced climate change.

What follows is an introduction to cleaning up carbon pollution using existing executive authority.

U.S. carbon pollution projected to rise over next 30 years

Carbon pollution is the primary greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. According to the latest projections by the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. is about halfway toward its goal of reducing its carbon pollution by 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. The implementation of the Obama administration’s new limits on carbon pollution from automobiles will achieve greater pollution reductions every year. Even with this progress, however, the Energy Information Administration recently projected that carbon pollution from the energy-generating sector—the source of most U.S. pollution—will only be five percent lower in 2040 than it was in 2005 if we stick to current policies.

Legal authority to cut carbon pollution

In 1970 Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, a pollution-control regime that still exists today. The act developed a flexible regulatory system to limit pollutants from stationary and mobile sources. Twenty years later Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which increased the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s authority to reduce the pollution responsible for acid rain, airborne toxics, hazardous pollutants, ozone-depleting chemicals and more smog-forming pollutants. Though it has been a long time—22 years—since the Clean Air Act was updated, it is still an effective and flexible tool for responding to new and ongoing scientific and public health challenges. It also produces a huge net economic benefit by reducing health care costs related to air pollution. In fact, the EPA estimates that “direct benefits from the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020, a figure that dwarfs the direct costs of implementation ($65 billion).”

The EPA can develop safeguards for unregulated pollutants

The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to limit air pollutants from stationary sources such as chemical plants, utilities and industrial plants, as well as automobiles and other mobile sources. The act grants the EPA the authority to let states develop individual plans to meet national health standards. It also allows the agency’s administrator to prescribe standards for any individual pollutants if he or she determines that such a pollutant “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” This is known as an “endangerment finding.”

At the turn of the 21st century, the evidence of the public health and economic threats posed by climate change grew. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Republican nominee George W. Bush promised to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. Six weeks after taking office, however, he broke that promise. His administration essentially ignored any concrete steps to reduce the carbon pollution responsible for climate change in its May 2001 National Energy Plan devised by Vice President Dick Cheney—who largely consulted with Big Oil, coal and utility companies.

The Supreme Court decides that gaseous carbon compounds can be pollutants

In the wake of Bush administration inertia, states that were concerned about their growing vulnerability to damages from climate change sued the EPA under the Clean Air Act to force the government to take action. In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and as such, the agency’s administrator must consider whether these pollutants “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” If the administrator finds that this is the case, he or she has the authority to limit pollutant emissions.

The Obama administration makes a carbon pollution endangerment finding

In December 2009 the Obama administration’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, adhered to the recommendation of agency scientists and finally made the endangerment finding for six major greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. Jackson noted that the “impact on morbidity and mortality associated with higher temperatures” provided support for “a public health endangerment finding.”

Carbon pollution limits will apply only to the largest emitters

The Supreme Court decision and subsequent endangerment finding paved the way for the EPA to develop the first limits on carbon pollution from stationary sources, such as power plants and oil refineries, under the Clean Air Act.

This work began with the so-called “tailoring rule,” which limits carbon pollution reduction permits to only the largest industrial sources. Without the tailoring rule, the Clean Air Act would have required permits for sources emitting as little as 100 to 250 tons of a pollutant per year, depending on which pollutant. The EPA, however, found that this would “overwhelm the capabilities of state and local … permitting authorities to issue permits.”

The first phase of the tailoring rule, announced in September 2009, instituted operation permits for “anyway sources”—those sources that would have to get a pollution permit for other reasons besides greenhouse gas emissions—if they increased those other emissions by 75,000 or more tons per year of a carbon dioxide equivalent. The second phase of the tailoring rule required permits for newly constructed greenhouse gas emitters if they spewed at least 100,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent. It also required permits for existing modified structures if their net greenhouse gas emissions increased by 75,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent. The third phase of the tailoring rule considered—but ultimately rejected—the idea of lowering the carbon dioxide equivalent thresholds; it did, however, establish plant-wide applicability limitations to streamline the permit process.

The EPA determined that under this tailoring rule, “only 15,550 sources will need operating permits” and that nearly all of these facilities already had them. The agency noted that, “Without the Tailoring Rule 6 million sources would have needed operating permits” because the regulation would have covered millions of small emitters, as well. This would have overwhelmed states’ efforts to issue permits and could have effectively halted pollution control permits and systems.

The agency adopted the tailoring rule to ensure that “emissions from small farms, restaurants, and all but the very largest commercial facilities will not be covered by these programs at this time.” This means that only the biggest and baddest polluters would have to limit their emissions. Even with the tailoring rule, 67 percent of all stationary-source greenhouse gas emitters are covered by limits developed by the EPA. Big coal, utility and oil companies, along with other interests opposed to climate protection, have attempted to overturn this sensible rule, but the courts have so far denied these efforts.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE and CLEAN AIR ACT pages for more related news on this topic. 

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