The Clean Power Plan Cannot Exist In a Vacuum

The Clean Power Plan Cannot Exist In a Vacuum

The United States (U.S.) currently has no rules for global warming pollution from power plants. This is significant given that power plants account for roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions — the single largest source in the nation. Globally, U.S. power plants accounted for 6 percent of global warming emissions, second only to China. For these reasons, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is rightfully heralded as a climate game changer. And, despite all the controversy surrounding the plan, many states are in the process of developing compliance packages and think tanks like the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) are providing states with a menu of implementation and compliance options.

There are some big benefits that come with Obama’s plan. Overall the plan is slated to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent, or 870 million tons of carbon, by 2030. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently highlighted health benefits including a reduction in premature deaths, child asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospital admissions and missed work days. Further, the plan will save the average American approximately $85 per year on their electricity bills.

BREAKING: On Monday, President Obama will release the final version of America’s Clean Power Plan—the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change. If you agree that we can’t condemn our kids and grandkids to a planet that’s beyond fixing, share this video with your friends and family. It’s time to #ActOnClimate.

Posted by The White House on Saturday, August 1, 2015

It is also commendable that the final version of the CPP includes both bolder incentives to build renewable energy such as solar and wind power, and less reliance on fracked gas to replace coal power. Additionally, the updated CPP renewable incentives program focuses on assisting communities of color and low-wealth communities who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. As President Obama remarked this afternoon while unveiling the plan and calling out CPP opponents, “If you care about low-income & minority communities, start caring about the air they breathe and stop trying to steal their healthcare.” These are encouraging remarks that help place the issue of  disproportionate suffering of these communities at the forefront of the climate discussion. 

But there are deficiencies in the CPP too. And there are concerns that the plan will do more to continue the status quo than it will to pave a bold new path for our climate.  First of all, power sector climate pollution is already down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years. Furthermore, it’s also anticipated that the CPP would only reduce aggregate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by a mere six percent. Finally, the issue of fracked gas still needs to be addressed, even in this stronger version of the plan.

Specifically, the CPP actually encourages reliance on fracked gas as a substitute for coal, because it does not account for the climate impacts of new natural gas generators and vastly underestimates each state’s renewable energy capacity. Even with incentives to increase renewables, the plan still anticipates that 33 percent of electricity generation will come from natural gas in 2030. That’s why outside advisers like NACAA are still pushing disproven methods like “improving coal quality,” “carbon capture and sequestration” and “switching from coal to natural gas.”

There is plenty that we could say about coal quality and carbon capture, but to keep it simple, let me just say that the idea “cleaner coal” is an oxymoron and carbon capture is an ingredient for a recipe to bake disaster.

Let’s focus instead on the idea that natural gas is a key part of the plan to promote clean power. We all know that natural gas contains methane, which is 80 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. President Obama, on the surface, seems to realize that methane emissions are a clear and present danger to our climate. He’s even announced plans to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 – 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.

By relying heavily on natural gas as an option for compliance, the CPP treats the  environment as a series of closed loop systems rather than a series of interdependent and very symbiotic systems. It doesn’t consider the cumulative effects of new natural gas plants that will lead to more fracking, more pipelines and more Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities — every one of them leaking more and more Methane that’s a more pernicious climate pollutant than the Carbon in our coal. In sum, switching from coal to natural gas would have a greater impact on the climate than coal alone. It’s basically like switching from regular to low tar cigarettes, with an even worse chemical in the filter that ends up being smoked more often.

Still, the final rule does reduce reliance on fraked gas – and includes additional investments in clean energy. Those changes are good steps that make the CPP stronger and they’re a direct response to the tens of thousands of comments Environmental Action members submitted asking to “un-Frack” the Clean Power Plan last year.

But this is a fight to stop global climate change, so we also have to ask how the CPP will balance with other Obama Administration policies, most importantly its ocean drilling platform and free trade agreements. The question still remains: How Much Does The CPP Actually Do For Lowering Aggregate U.S. Climate Pollution? Carbon Bath

The real issue is emissions coupled with the volume of carbon dioxide that already exists in our atmosphere. In their landmark book Climate Shock , authors Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman offer an excellent explanation of the current carbon emissions situation. First they explain the idea of climate sensitivity, that is the level global temperatures increase if we double carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Scientists tell us the range for climate sensitivity is somewhere between 2 .7 to 8 Fahrenheit. Currently our atmosphere contains approximately 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. If we even come close to doubling this amount, say 700 ppm, Wagner and Weitzman tell us that the median global temperature would increase 6.1 F.

This would be a global game changer, pretty much game over for the planet. But according to the Climate Shock, there’s about a 10 percent chance of this occurring. That may seem like a small number, but think of it like this. If there was a 10 percent chance that an asteroid, similar to the one that killed off the dinosaurs, was going to hit the earth how would you react and what would you expect from your government to handle it?

One of my favorite songs is a tune by Phish called “Bathtub Gin.” There’s a line in the song, “we’re all in this together, and we love to take a bath,” which is actually rather germane with respect to emissions. The Climate Shock authors invite us to think of the atmosphere as a giant bathtub. There’s a faucet, or global emissions from human activity, and there’s a drain, or the planet’s ability to absorb emissions and reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide naturally. Back in the day the “faucet” and the “drain” were in relative harmony. But when we started burning coal and other fossil fuels, which essentially created more flow than our drain could handle — we’re pumping out way more pollution than can be absorbed, and it’s building up in the atmosphere with devastating consequences.

Ergo, the solution is not just to stabilize emissions, because this won’t allow the drain to catch up. In order to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, we must reduce our emissions by a lot, and we needed to do this like ten years ago.

This is where the CPP falls a bit short. Along with Obama’s “All of the Above Strategy” the CPP does not seem to grasp the bathtub analogy. It will stabilize and even slightly reduce emissions from one sector – and that’s good! But when we add in Arctic drilling and energy exports, trade agreements, it represents a drop in the bucket.

So this is indeed a good day for taking some steps to fight humanity’s greatest challenge. But we must be careful to look at the entire picture and point out where this administration is falling short to fight climate change. A six percent reduction in 17 years is simply not going to get the job done.