Credit: George Danby

Flood zones in Maine have expanded, lobsters are moving north, and ticks and Lyme disease are on the rise, according to a University of Maine report. Cities, including Portland, are upgrading their infrastructure, and insurance policies, to cope with rising seas. Billions of dollars will eventually be spent to deal with the effects of climate change.

But can we afford to cut greenhouse gas emissions now? Would it make a difference?

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is considering regulations proposed by citizen petition that would cut greenhouse gas emissions in Maine over the 2020-2035 period. July 30 is the deadline for comments.

Efforts to reduce emissions have made a difference. Net greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. fell 9 percent from 2005 to 2014, alongside a solid 13 percent growth of real GDP. All but seven states, in fact, decreased carbon dioxide emissions.

Maine did its part. We cut CO2 emissions 27 percent between 2005 and 2015. The 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases here (all in energy and paper) did even better — they cut their emissions by 46 percent over the 2006-16 period alone, thanks largely to new technologies. The proposed rules would maintain this momentum and strengthen the state’s leadership position in this area.

Nationally, thousands of businesses are on board with energy efficiency and reduced emissions, including half of America’s largest companies. Most states have clean energy and energy efficiency goals, as do thousands of municipalities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Walmart has a zero-emissions target. Its Project Gigaton succeeded in cutting emissions from suppliers by more than 20 million tons in its first year alone.

Under proposed rules, large-scale greenhouse gas emitters would be required to draw up a plan to reduce their emissions 8 percent a year over the 2020-2035 period. This target seems achievable for the energy sector, given that wind and solar energy is now cost-competitive. Nationally, most additions to utility-scale power generation capacity are coming from wind (24 percent) and solar (30 percent) sources. Even Texas, an oil state, gets 18 percent of its electricity from wind and solar, compared to Maine’s 14 percent.

Not all firms, though, have suitable technologies available to them to achieve the target 8 percent reduction rate. At the same time, others are arguably ahead of schedule. A focus on large greenhouse gas emitters that have lagged behind their peers would make sense. The Department of Environmental Protection can modify goals of each business as appropriate, or even reduce the 8 percent target.

It is important to note that the transportation sector is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationally and in Maine. CO2 emissions in the transportation sector in Maine are rising, while emissions are falling in commercial, industrial and electric power. Owners of large vehicle fleets could largely meet their goals by gradually buying more energy-efficient vehicles. Even energy-efficient heavy-duty trucks are available, not only in Scandinavia but also in the United States. There are technologies that reduce emissions by slowing idling speeds or capturing emissions, as well.

We consumers get off lightly under the proposal, and residential CO2 emissions have not dropped. We can do our part by checking our home insulation, buying more efficient appliances and vehicles, recycling, installing solar panels or heat pumps, reducing waste, and supporting green energy projects and improved transportation systems. To estimate your carbon footprint and check out the effect of such steps, go to: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator.

The turn toward sustainability is already affecting our lives, and our economy, in much the same way that computers have. The products and materials in your home, the way you dispose of waste, and the vehicles you drive and transportation networks have all been influenced by the need to be emission-efficient.

All these initiatives and more will be needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels. A faster switch to low-emission technologies is doable, but it depends on strong public support and a suitable regulatory framework.

Eighty years from now, the effects of climate change will be dire. Rising oceans, massive migrations and food shortages will be preoccupying people and governments around the world.

Many of our grandchildren will live to see the ocean level in Maine rise 4 feet or more. Reducing emissions now can keep sea level rise closer to the lower end of the possible range. Today’s efforts to reduce emissions will pay off many-fold as we join with others to tackle this looming crisis.

Marianne Hill, Ph.D., moved to Maine in 2013 from Mississippi, where she did the state economic forecast and edited the Mississippi Economic Review and Outlook for 23 years. She lives in South Portland.

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