In a bold move that will help safeguard the health and safety of our children and future generations, the Environmental Protection Agency in June released the Clean Power Plan. The plan delivers on the Obama administration’s promise to address a primary cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Because this plan will force changes to the power sector and will cost some people money, it will draw critics. But just because it will be criticized does not mean it is not a good idea.
Our nation’s electricity generating power plants are responsible for about one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — the single largest source, followed by the transportation sector, industry, and the commercial, residential and agricultural sectors.
Despite a very small (but vocal) minority of climate change skeptics, the world’s scientific community has come to the consensus our world is warming and human influence is extremely likely to be the dominant cause of the observed warming. It is prudent to act now, given what we know. Delaying actions will increase the costs we bear, in terms of damages, and make future efforts to reduce emissions more expensive.
Even though this initiative is coming from the EPA under a Democratic administration, climate change is not a political issue. Notwithstanding the fact fundraisers on both sides of the aisle use the issue of climate change for their own advantage — as one would expect — the Clean Power Plan is a good idea.
The immediate need to address carbon pollution is rooted in strong scientific evidence. The National Climate Assessment, released this spring, represents the most comprehensive report on the impacts of climate change on the United States. It outlined the current and future impacts of climate change on every region in the country, including heat waves, flooding, drought and more frequent extreme weather events.
This report adds to the decades of mounting scientific evidence and again made clear the debate on the science of climate change is over. The report also confirmed what climate scientists have been warning about for decades: Climate change is a largely human-made problem caused by the free disposal of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, into our air. For Maine, this means we can expect warmer and generally wetter conditions in all four seasons. Climate change also affects the physical and chemical properties of Gulf of Maine waters, altering the food web that supports commercially important fish, shellfish and other marine species.
The Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution by 30 percent — below 2005 levels — by 2030. The plan rightly focuses on the electricity sector. Most economic studies on the costs of climate change mitigation show the electricity sector is the least expensive sector to target for emission reductions. It simply is cheaper to reduce emissions from large, centralized sources that burn high carbon fuel than by focusing on more diffuse sources, such as homes and businesses.
Besides slowing the rate of global warming, the EPA projects additional benefits from health improvements because of the use of cleaner burning fuels. It predicts its plan will prevent 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 childhood asthma attacks, and up to 490,000 missed work and school days in 2030. It also predicts it will prevent 340 to 3,300 heart attacks.
Maine — and other Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — already caps its power plant greenhouse gas emissions. The Clean Power Plan will reinforce what we already do by raising the bar and the benefits. For the rest of the nation, the plan gives states the flexibility they need to reach their carbon pollution reduction goals in a way that is best for them, empowering them to use a variety of strategies from energy efficiency to investments in clean energy.
This is not a choice between clean air or a strong economy. We should do this, and we can do this at a reasonable cost that provides the additional benefit of healthier air for us to breathe.
Jonathan Rubin is a professor of economics at the University of Maine and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.