Monthly Archives: June 2013

The President takes the lead on climate change

(This post first appeared on Tuesday, June 25th on EDF Voices)


Today President Obama took an important step toward meeting the promise of his inaugural address to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

In a Climate Action Plan announced at Georgetown University, the President laid out his vision for putting in place common sense policies that will cut carbon pollution while driving innovation, cutting energy waste and energy bills, creating jobs, and protecting public health. The President’s Plan pledged to:

  • Cut carbon pollution in the United States by putting in place tough carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, accelerating investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and innovative technologies, reducing emissions of highly potent greenhouse gases such as methane and HFCs, and putting in place fuel-saving standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks;
  • Work with local communities and vulnerable sectors of the economy to prepare for climate impacts that can no longer be avoided; and
  • Couple action at home with leadership internationally to forge a truly global solution to this global challenge. (Read more about the international aspects of the plan on ourClimate Talks blog.)

The President’s decision to focus his administration on addressing the serious problem of methane’s contribution to climate change is an additional, welcome part of his announcement.

He is in step with most Americans, who have moved past the old debates about climate change and are now dealing with the impacts. Reducing carbon pollution will help drought-stricken farmers in the Midwest, coastal residents from Florida to Connecticut rebuilding after storms, communities ravaged by wildfire in the West, children suffering from asthma, and taxpayers everywhere who have to foot the bill for the impacts of climate change.

Most Americans would be shocked to know that there are no current limits on carbon pollution from power plants. By setting the first standards in history for carbon pollution from power plants in the United States – which produce 2 billion tons of this pollution each year, or about 40% of the nation’s total – the President will help modernize our power system, ensuring that our electricity is reliable, affordable, healthy and clean. He can do so in a way that can give industry the flexibility it needs to make cost-effective investments in clean energy technologies.

I’m seeing plenty of reasons for hope these days. California recently put in place nearly economy-wide limits on carbon pollution – in the ninth largest economy in the world. Two weeks ago, the United States and China agreed to work together to reduce powerful greenhouse gases known as HFCs. And last week in the city of Shenzhen, the Chinese launched the first of seven emissions trading pilot programs.

But U.S. leadership is needed to help build on this progress and secure the reductions in carbon pollution scientists tell us we need at home and around the world. And the President today showed leadership, aligning common sense action with a vision of the future that will create a stronger America for our children and grandchildren.

We expect Members of Congress to strongly support the President. We know the usual naysayers will soon be claiming that we can’t afford to deal with this problem. The truth is we can’t afford not to. Those who oppose the President’s actions today apparently want no limits at all on carbon pollution. That’s a highly irresponsible position in the face of a scientifically established threat. In fact, failure to act now will only saddle our children’s generation with huge additional costs. Those who say they are concerned about the burden of fiscal deficits on coming generations should also worry about the enormous, and growing, costs of climate change.

Thanks to the President, the days of silence and inaction on climate are over. This plan could become an important part of his legacy.

We still have a long way to go. Now it’s up to all of us to join with the President in confronting the defining challenge of our time.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Comments are closed

The Cost to Meet Clean Air and Environmental Standards Comes Down (Again)

It is almost getting old for us to write about this … but it needs to be repeated.

As power plant pollution control projects continue, we are seeing – yet again — that the cost of meeting clean air standards, like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants (MATS), has fallen.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped some major power companies and other opponents from trying to undermine clean air and environmental standards.

However, this past quarter American Electric Power (AEP), NRG, and FirstEnergy each told their investors that their anticipated costs for meeting environmental standards dropped.

As you can see on our chart, AEP has lowered its estimated costs of following environmental standards by half, from a high of $8 billion down to $4 to $5 billion.

AEP was the top emitter of mercury, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide in 2011 among the top 100 power producers in the U.S.

And … AEP is a leader in the lawsuit to halt the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

As our chart also shows, FirstEnergy has lowered their cost estimate for complying with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards by nearly 70 percent.

FirstEnergy’s estimate dropped from a high of $3 billion down to $925 million (which is $50 million lower than they estimated last quarter).

FirstEnergy was the sixth highest emitter of mercury in 2011 among the top 100 power producers, and is also challenging the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in court.

The third company on our chart, NRG, has lowered its costs for complying with environmental standards from $730 million to $530 million, a reduction of more than 25 percent.

NRG was the fourth highest emitter of mercury in 2011 among the top 100 power producers.

These three companies are just a few of the power companies that have decreased their cost estimates for complying MATS and other environmental standards in recent years.

The tens of billions of dollars in expected health benefits from the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards has not decreased, though.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will provide crucial emission reductions of toxic pollutants including mercury, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, and chromium.

It will save thousands of lives every year, prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and help protect the hundreds of thousands of babies born in America every year who are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury in the womb. And that is priceless.

It’s important that we keep in mind these misguided “sky is falling” claims about environmental compliance costs as EPA carries out its responsibilities under the nation’s clean air laws to address carbon pollution from power plants.

The time tested history of the Clean Air Act is quite the opposite – the sky is clearing, and at far less than the costs predicted by industry.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Economics, Health, News, Policy / Comments are closed

New IEA Report Sets a Road Map to a Cleaner Energy Future

Today, the International Energy Agency released a special report of its World Energy Outlook, entitled Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. The report is notable not only for its substantive conclusions – but for what it signifies.

First, the substance:

The report starts by emphasizing that energy-related CO2 emissions are a crucial driver of global warming, that they are increasing rapidly, and that as a result the world is not on target to keep concentrations of greenhouse gases below the level that would provide even a fifty-percent probability of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to two degrees – a commonly cited benchmark to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.  Standard fare, perhaps – but noteworthy nonetheless coming from the world’s leading energy authority.

A road map toward a more secure future

The key finding of the report — what makes it required reading — is the analysis of what the IEA calls its “4-for-2˚C scenario.”

The IEA identifies a package of four policies that could keep the door open to 2 degrees through 2020 – at no net economic cost to any individual region or major country, and relying only on existing, widely available technologies:

  1. Specific energy efficiency measures in transport, buildings, and industry (1.5 GT savings in 2020/49% of the total package)
  2. Limiting construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants (640 MT/21%)
  3. Minimizing methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production (550 MTCO2e/18%)
  4. Accelerating the partial phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies (360 MT/12%)

The IEA estimates that these four measures would reduce energy-related GHG emissions by 3.1 GT CO2-eq in 2020, relative to IEA’s “New Policies” reference scenario – corresponding to 80% of the reduction required to be on a 2-degree path.

Take a look at this chart, from IEA’s report, that summarizes the policies:

(Source: World Energy Outlook Special Report, 2013)

Here’s a second chart, also from IEA’s report. This one makes the key point about no net economic costs:

(Source: World Energy Outlook Special Report, 2013)

Four policies, using widely available technologies, imposing no net economic cost on any individual region or major country, that put the world in the position to make the turn to climate safety.

That’s the headline.

The cost of delay

IEA’s report also discusses the vulnerability of the energy sector to climate change, and emphasizes that delaying climate action will drive up the costs of meeting a 2 degree target later.  The report estimates that putting off action until 2020 would trim near-term investment by $1.5 trillion in the short run – but at the cost of requiring an additional $5 trillion to be spent in subsequent years.  In present-value terms, using a 5% discount rate, delay doubles the cost of action: from $1.2 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

This is an argument that we at EDF — and others — have been making for some time. But it is a crucial one nonetheless – and the IEA analysis gives some added analytical weight to the argument.

Not an oil shock, but a climate shock

These findings are especially welcome coming from IEA, a world-respected authority on energy markets and policy that was founded to facilitate international coordination among oil-consuming countries.  Indeed, the messenger may be nearly as important as the message.  What launched the IEA was the 1973-4 oil crisis.  Now, nearly forty years later, the IEA report makes clear that the real energy-related threat to economic prosperity is not an oil shock, but a climate shock.

Back to the big picture

To be sure, the four policies analyzed in this report won’t fully suffice to address climate change in the long run: indeed, much more ambition will be needed.

Under the “4-for-2˚C” scenario, the IEA estimates that world energy-related emissions will peak and start to decline before 2020 – but we’ll still need concerted action on a global scale to get greenhouse gas emissions onto a steepening downward trajectory.

Take a look at one more chart from IEA’s report:

(Source: World Energy Outlook Special Report, 2013)

Acknowledging this point, IEA’s report underscores the importance of continued innovation in low-carbon technologies in transport and power generation (including carbon capture and storage), and highlights the vital importance of a long-term carbon price.

Beyond the scope of the report, there’s much to be done outside the energy sector – in particular by curbing tropical deforestation, and promoting the spread of agricultural practices that can achieve the “triple win” of greater productivity, greater resilience to climate, and lower environmental impacts (including GHG emissions).  And all of these efforts must be carried out in tandem with the overarching challenge of promoting broad-based economic prosperity around the globe, as President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank has repeatedly emphasized.

But the bottom line is that one of the most hopeful publications on climate change you’ll read this year has come from the International Energy Agency, of all places.  Here is a road map toward a cleaner, more secure future.  Now it’s up to us to take it.

Posted in Economics, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Read 1 Response

Stronger Ozone Standards Will Secure Healthier, Longer Lives for Millions of Americans

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF Voices)

For some time, public health and medical experts have been clear that the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard for ozone, the primary ingredient in smog, isn’t doing enough to protect Americans from serious health risks.

Unfortunately, before EPA even proposed new health standards in response to rigorous science, the American Petroleum Institute (API) attacked with sky is falling claims that 97% of businesses in America would shut down.

This is quintessential beltway politics: fact free and designed to hide the real issues.

As a health scientist, I think the facts matter. And the bottom line is that EPA has a responsibility to adopt health standards anchored in science. So let’s take a closer look at what the science tells us.

Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog and is the single most widespread air pollutant. Ozone is linked to premature deaths, increased asthma attacks and breathing problems, as well as increased emergency room and hospital admissions. This pollutant poses an especially serious risk to children, seniors and people with lung diseases like asthma and bronchitis.

The Science is Sound

The science on ozone’s health effects is rock solid. Evidence from more than 1700 peer-reviewed scientific reports (which continues to be reinforced by new data) clearly shows that our current ozone standard isn’t doing the job of protecting the public health. We need to strengthen that standard.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) – the body that makes science-based recommendations to EPA – has issued multiple statements indicating that the current ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) is unacceptable with regard to protecting human health.

And new research, including recent reports demonstrating a significant increase in pulmonary inflammation in healthy individuals exposed to 60 parts per billion (ppb) ozone, supports this analysis and highlights the urgent need for a more health-protective standard.

Need for an Adequate Margin of Safety

By law, EPA must set national health-based standards that protect human health with “an adequate margin of safety.” To do this, the agency considers factors including the nature and severity of the health effects involved, the size of the at-risk populations, and the scientific uncertainties that must be addressed.

How do these factors add up in the case of ozone?

The nature and severity of the health effects involved: It is hard to imagine health effects more severe than death or the inability of a person to breathe without a struggle, especially if it’s a small child who has to be rushed to the emergency room.

The size of the at-risk population: Nearly 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma during their lifetimes and estimates predict that number will grow by more than 100 million by 2025. Nearly 12 million people suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a disease that causes serious, long-term disability and kills more than 120,000 Americans each year. And that’s only a partial list of those at increased risk from ozone.

The degree of uncertainties that must be addressed: Evidence continues to accumulate of effects in healthy people at exposures as low or lower than 60 ppb. Thus, if uncertainty is part of the decision making process, then EPA is obliged to adopt a standard even more protective than the one recommended by CASAC.

Here We Go Again: Unfounded Claims Concerning Economic Impacts

These kinds of sky is falling prognostications are not new. As far back as 1997, when EPA was considering one of the first revisions to the ozone health standard, Senator Spencer Abraham (R. MI) was among many who claimed that the new standards would have devastating economic impacts. “Dry cleaning establishments, hair salons, and other small businesses will not be able to absorb the increased costs imposed by these regulations,” the Senator said.

Those claims proved to be entirely false. In fact, in fact, Texas has made the case that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has gone up even as ozone controls strategies have been adopted, resulting in cleaner air across the state.

Old scare tactics die hard. That’s why today API and others are again trying to stop reform of the ozone standards by making the same sort of unfounded claims that all businesses will close the doors. But environmental protection is, or should be, a health issue, not a political football. And it’s on the ground of health that that The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American College of Chest Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the American Thoracic Society have all endorsed CASAC recommendations for new ozone standards.

In the end, EPA should not be swayed by “sky is falling” claims, whether from the petroleum industry or any other group. We urge EPA not to delay adoption stricter ozone standards. To do so would be to needlessly threaten the health of millions of Americans.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Health, News / Comments are closed