Kudos to President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on a true breakthrough in climate policy yesterday! The newly proposed EPA rules on CO2 emissions from power plants represent a breakthrough not only in the US Government ambition to halt climate change, but also a breakthrough in the methods used to do so. The EPA rules will be attacked, both as too much and too little. I will say up front that indeed much more needs to be done. Yet it is a day for celebrating a significant watershed in US policy.
Let me state three key points to begin. First, the dangers from human-induced climate change are real and the climate science is sound. Deniers will probably shriek in the coming days, yet their scientific credibility is now nearly zero and sinking fast. With another record heat year or two the climate deniers would then crawl back into their caves, or more likely into their air-conditioned offices on Madison Avenue where they are paid very big bucks by the Koch Brothers to confuse the public on this vital issue.
Second, Monday's EPA rules are significant but not enough. They aim to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants by around 30 percent as of 2030 compared with 2005, but we will need must deeper CO2 reductions thereafter (e.g. by 2050), and across many more sectors of the economy (e.g. transport, which the Administration has started dealing with through stricter fuel economy standards). Still, Monday's EPA rules and targets matter a lot, and set a very sensible and constructive template for further actions.
Third, US actions by themselves will not be sufficient to stop global warming if the other major emitters, notably China and the European Union, and also Canada, Australia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India, and Russia continue with business as usual. But Monday's announcement makes it far more likely that the other high-emitting countries will also agree to make major cuts in Paris in December 2015 when they and the US meet to negotiate a new climate agreement. The US now has a detailed, if partial, plan on the table. Monday's actions will therefore help the whole world to reach a serious agreement next year.
The EPA plan is smart. It doesn't rely on a single policy tool, like earlier proposals for a national cap-and-trade system or a national carbon tax. Monday's proposals call on the states, or regional groupings of states, to come up with plans of action that suit their own circumstances, such as their own choices on nuclear power and their own access to low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar power. Of course the states will find that meeting the EPA standards will be easiest if they cooperate with other states in regional and even national solutions (such as building new transmission lines to carry wind and solar power from distant locations to major population centers).
Moreover, Monday's plan recognizes that there are several ways to achieve decarbonization (that is, a reduction of CO2 emissions). These include new power plant designs, shifts from coal to gas, expanded generation of low-carbon or zero-carbon electricity (e.g. nuclear, wind, and solar power), and demand-side efficiency. The EPA sets the targets for each state based on cost-effective technologies and then tells them they can do what best suits the state and the region, with time to meet the goal and flexibility in the exact path. The EPA standard is called "best systems of emissions reduction," or "BSER." The "best" will vary across the states and regions of the United States.
The EPA has obviously done its homework, analyzing in detail the range of technologies that states can adopt in pursuing the BSER standard that is the basis for the carbon emissions targets it sets. The report goes into considered and cogent detail on choices like nuclear power (yes), carbon capture and sequestration (in some cases), wind and solar (surely part of the solution in many areas), and greater energy efficiency in power generation and in final energy use. Moreover, the EPA has also done its homework in comparing costs and benefits. It now uses a Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) to measure the costs of CO2 in terms of future damages from human-induced climate change. These social costs are compared with the incremental costs of reducing CO2 emissions.
As the EPA study makes crystal clear, and as most Americans (notably those who are not CEOs of oil, gas, and coal companies, and those who are not paid to propagandize on those companies' behalf) also know, reducing CO2 emissions is the bargain of the century. Nobody who looks ahead with honesty could truly want the world to continue on its current reckless energy and CO2 trajectory. This EPA Plan is the best US strategy to date to get us on to a much safer course.
There is of course much more to do. The EPA standards are essentially based on existing technologies, yet with some creative and cost-effective efforts, we can dramatically improve the range of low-carbon technology options. When the National Institutes of Health led a program to reduce the cost of sequencing the human genome, the US Government effort succeeded in reducing the sequencing cost from $100,000,000 per genome in 2000 to around $1,000 per genome today. That's not bad: a 100,000X improvement in just 14 years! If we now similarly aim to develop low-carbon or zero-carbon energy systems, we could also achieve enormous gains and reductions in costs of low-carbon energy systems.
As part of next year's global climate negotiations, the US is well positioned now not only to ask other countries to adopt long-term plans and strategies to reduce their own CO2 emissions, but also to join the US in several exciting and highly promising low-carbon technology ventures, including to: develop carbon capture and storage technologies; make nuclear energy cheaper and safer; store intermittent power from the wind and sun; and lower the costs and raise the performance of electric vehicles. All of those important technology breakthroughs are within reach. If we aim high in innovation, we will not only make the world much safer but also make the economy far more efficient, with cleaner air and water, and a much higher-quality life in our cities and farms. Moreover, our national security will be greatly enhanced by enabling us to rely far more on our vast supplies of renewable energy.
Let the climate deniers and special interests scream. The rest of us should offer our applause and political support to the White House and EPA for a crucial job well started today!
Follow Jeffrey Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffDSachs