Carbon emissions are the new second-hand smoke
I have a bad cold this week, so I apologize in advance if this post is fuzzier than usual. Luckily I think this bug is going around, so readers’ brains are probably fuzzier as well.
Despite the cold, I couldn’t skip Cliffnotes this week, because there’s just so much going on. First, on California:
- Dedicated readers helpfully pointed out that I skipped some important bills in my legislative roundup last week, notably AB 127, which sets new flammability standards for building insulation and other important building materials. This is a big win for advocates of better indoor air quality, since flame retardants currently used in insulation have been linked to asthma, learning disabilities, cancer, and other serious health problems over the years. Thanks to my friend Dennis Murphy of USGBC Northern California, who took to email to remind me this “is very sexy stuff,” and should be celebrated.
- Governor Brown signed the state’s new fracking bill, SB 4, into law this week with the caveat that he will seek amendments next legislative session with the bill’s author, Senator Fran Pavley. Brown’s signing statement noted “I am also directing the Department of Conservation when implementing the bill to develop an efficient permitting program for well stimulation activities that groups permits together based on factors such as known geologic conditions and environmental impacts, while providing for more particularized review in other situations where necessary.” This idea of grouping together permits is extremely controversial in the environmental community, where some see it as a “shortcut” in the permitting process that could “reduce either substantive protection or public process.” There’s no question this one will continue to be closely watched.
These are big issues in California and can’t be understated. But in the climate world, the really significant news came this week from Washington, where the EPA put out its new rules on power plant emissions. The first piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the rules limit new gas-fired power plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour and new coal plants to 1,100 pounds. For those not intimately versed in how power plants work, advanced coal plants currently average about 1,800 pounds of CO2 emissions. That means new coal plants will have to incorporate best-in-class technology like carbon capture in order to meet the standard.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy emphasized this week that existing plants will not be held to these same standards, but will have to increase their efficiency to lower carbon emissions. The EPA is exploring ways in which the states can implement their own plans to lower emissions in these existing plants. As Matthew Wald writes in the New York Times this week, giving states this kind of flexibility could open the door to a national carbon market. According to Wald, “E.P.A. might set a simple limit in pounds per kilowatt-hour, or might let the states convert that rate of emissions into an overall cap. The cap might be met by blending in wind power, or by shutting one coal plant and earning credits that could be applied to another.” State-level credits could then be traded on regional carbon markets, creating a subnational market groundswell. I’ve always believed that regions are where the action is, so this is an exciting possibility.
Finally, going from the subnational to the international, results are beginning to trickle out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose new assessment report on climate science is due out this weekend. (If you don’t follow the ins and outs of the IPCC process and want a quick primer, I recommend this one.) The latest findings indicate a 95 percent certainty in the scientific community that global warming is man-made. That number is up from 90 percent in the last report, and 66 percent in 2001. What does all that mean? Here’s a list of things scientists are less sure of than climate change. Notably on that list, we’re now about as certain that climate change is real and man-made as we are that cigarettes kill. To take the analogy further, by not acting to curb climate change, we’re immersing the planet in a huge, inescapable cloud of second-hand smoke.
That last sentence nearly did my poor cold-afflicted lungs in. So I’ll end there. If you want more, I have two blogs in the Wall Street Journal this week: one on fossil fuel subsidies, and one on why we may need to take out an insurance policy on climate risk. (Thanks to Susan Frank for pointing out the WSJ reader comments on that one, including the succinct “Cuckoo!”) Enjoy!