I didn't plan for a life built around protecting the environment. In fact, I started my career as a health agent in the town of Canton, Mass., and later worked for the Stoughton Board of Health. But at some point I realized that at its core, the issue of a clean environment is a matter of public health. The two are inextricably linked.
That's why, when President Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan earlier this year, he talked about the health of our children when laying out his strategy to take responsible steps to cut carbon pollution.
As part of that plan, the president directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to "complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants." That directive rests on legal authority our agency was granted by Congress through passing the Clean Air Act back in 1970. In 2007, the Supreme Court underscored that authority when it definitively determined that carbon pollution is covered by the Clean Air Act.
Among scientists, there is near universal agreement that climate change is happening, it's human caused, and it's a threat to our health and welfare.
The 12 hottest years on record have come in the last 15. Last year was the warmest year ever in the contiguous United States; sea ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record and about one-third of all Americans experienced 10 days or more of 100-degree heat.
We know that carbon pollution is the most prevalent heat-trapping greenhouse gas, warming our planet and fueling climate change. In 2011, power plants and major industrial facilities in the United States emitted over 3 billion metric tons of carbon pollution, which is equal to annual pollution from over 640 million cars. Annually in the U.S., carbon pollution from power plants accounts for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, or 40 percent of total carbon pollution, surpassing industrial sources or the transportation sector. That means power plants emit more carbon pollution than every boat, plane, train, and car in the U.S. combined.
With these facts in mind, and given our legal obligation to the American people, EPA is releasing a proposal to limit carbon pollution from future power plants.
Today's proposal applies only to future power plants, and sets separate national limits for natural gas-fired power plants and coal-fired power plants.
New large natural gas-fired turbines would need to emit less than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, while new small natural gas-fired turbines would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.
New coal-fired units would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour or, to provide plants the flexibility and time to optimize technologies, between 1,000 and 1,050 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour on average over 84 months of operation.
These levels are achievable by using partial carbon capture and sequestration, a proven technology that is being used right now to support the development of both new conventional and new unconventional coal plants.
These proposed standards would minimize carbon pollution by taking advantage of modern, cleaner energy technologies that power companies are already using to build the next generation of power plants. This is exactly what the Clean Air Act requires.
Without these steps we will continue to pay an ever-increasing price for climate impacts. In 2012 alone, the cost of weather disasters exceeded $110 billion in the United States, the second costliest year on record.
Beyond the costs of property destruction and disaster relief, there are significant public health risks and costs from climate change. Warmer temperatures spurred by carbon pollution worsen smog and pollen levels. This can lead to more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. The nation's asthma rates have already doubled over the past 30 years. In addition to safeguarding public health, these standards are cost effective. Since 1970, every $1 invested to comply with Clean Air Act standards has returned $4-8 in economic benefits. We estimate that by 2020, benefits from the Clean Air Act will outweigh the costs by a ratio of 30 to 1. These standards were developed the same way, based on proven technologies and common sense approaches.
The future power plant carbon pollution standards announced today begin to address the problem, and have benefited from incorporating inputs and views from over 2.5 million public comments, including those from industry leaders and trade groups. We've also carefully considered recent trends in the power sector. This proposal represents an update to the old proposal from last year.
EPA is also launching today the process to develop guidelines for existing power plants, building on progress state and local leaders have already made. More than 35 states have renewable energy targets, more than 25 have set energy efficiency targets, and over 1,000 mayors have signed agreements to cut carbon pollution. EPA is working in close consultation with states to ensure that any proposal for existing power plants allows flexibility to account for differences among states.
Throughout the development of both of these plans, we have kept an eye toward economic impact. The argument that we must choose between economic growth and environmental protection is a false one. Where climate change is concerned, the path forward lies in a more efficient, resilient and innovative domestic economy.
The good news is -- action on climate change presents a distinct opportunity. And we have seen it work. EPA recently worked with the auto industry to develop historic fuel economy standards that are saving families money and driving down carbon pollution. Today, the auto industry is thriving, and American consumers save about $8 thousand at the pump over the life of their vehicle. We can't solve climate change overnight -- but we can get closer to a solution. As the president said -- we must ask ourselves: Do "we have the courage to act before it's too late? How we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind," for generations to come.
Follow Gina McCarthy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GinaEPA