America mugged by good intentions

The Obama administration has unveiled a sweeping 645-page pollution control rule limiting carbon dioxide emissions from the hundreds of fossil-fuel power plants. It’s a noble gesture, but one that ignores the fact that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution.

The rule requires a 30 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. Hardest hit are the roughly 600 coal-fired power plants that account for 40 percent of U.S. electricity and about 38 percent of carbon pollution, the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. They contribute to the U.S. being the world’s second largest source of such emissions.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Court gave the EPA the green light to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions and regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.

The proposed rule is the strongest action the president has taken on climate change. It fulfills the pledge he made in his first year in office that, compared to 2005 levels, the U.S. would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide roughly 17 percent by 2020 and 85 percent by 2050. During his first term, the president increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

The various stakeholders have a year to comment on the proposed rule. Each state will then have a year to design and submit implementation plans. States can employ a variety of measures to meet the target, including plant upgrades, requiring plants to switch from coal to natural gas, enacting measures to reduce demand for electricity, producing more energy from greenhouse gas-free renewable sources such as solar and wind, or by starting “cap and trade” programs in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and firms buy and sell permits to pollute.

If states do not develop plans, the EPA will impose one.

The transition to a low-carbon economy won’t be free. It will likely drive up the price of electricity and of goods down the energy chain. Environmentalists and others argue that some of the expense will be offset by decreased health care costs and that new clean energy technologies will create jobs.

But the problem is not American warming, it’s global warming. The U.S. is only one player in the climate game.

China, India and other developing countries are poised to see an explosion in carbon pollution as millions of people join the middle class and enjoy cheap, available coal-fired electricity. Coal is used to generate nearly 40 percent of all the electricity produced in the world.

China has already passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases due to its increased reliance on coal-fired power plants and growing use of automobiles. As recently as 2007, China was bringing one or two new coal-fired plants on line each week. With a growing economy and rampant urbanization, it is the world’s biggest energy consumer; its use of coal, oil and other fossil fuels doubled between 2000 and 2010.

Coal accounts for 70 percent of China’s total energy consumption and 80 percent of its electricity. Its share of global coal usage rose from 27 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2010, twice the volume consumed in the U.S.

Emissions have leveled off in the industrial world but continue to grow rapidly in developing countries. The question is whether developing countries have an interest in accepting economic constraints that would change that dynamic. What evidence is there that the environment edges out economic growth as developing countries’ top priority?

The logic behind the proposed mandate seems to be that by leading by example, the U.S. will spur others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. being one strong voice among a chorus of reasonable nations might be a splendid idea if nations were reasonable, but how many times must the U.S. get mugged by countries pursuing their own self-interest?

Sadly, as Walter Cronkite himself might have said, “that’s the way it is.” Case closed.

originally published: June 7, 2014