Here’s a Little Perspective On the EPA’s New Carbon Rules

A planned reduction in power plant carbon emissions will help with climate change, but it’s not a full fix

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Jason Edwards/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Today the Environmental Protection Agency, at the direction of President Obama, laid out a proposed plan to tackle carbon emissions from existing power plants. The EPA's plan, or some variant thereof, should go into effect next year, but states have more time, up until 2018 in some cases, to submit their individual reduction plans. The goal is to cut power plant emissions nationwide to 30 percent below 2005 emission levels by the year 2030.

Rather than saying that each power plant will need to cut its emissions by 30 percent, the EPA's rules are taking more of a systems-wide approach. For example, using more cleaner-burning natural gas or renewable sources like wind and solar would count towards bringing a state's overall emissions down.

Here's the EPA talking about the plan:

Clean Power Plan Explained

What would the new rules do, in the big picture?

In recent years, the United States accounted for 14.5 perecent of global carbon emissions. Of all of the country's emissions, 38.1 percent come from burning coal and natural gas for power generation. Coal and natural gas, along with nuclear, are the dominant sources of power generation in the country.

Cutting power plant emissions by 30 percent, then, would actually represent a sizable reduction in the U.S.'s total emissions—a cut of approximately 6 percent in national emissions, or 1.8 percent of global emissions. In total, the plan would mitigate 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, says the Washington Post.

How achievable is it?

The goal of the EPA's plan is to reduce emissions by 30 percent of the emissions rate in 2005. The fracking boom, and the abundance of cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas it brought with it, means that power plant emissions have already dropped significantly—as much as 13% from 2005 levels, says Vox. Combine this with the fact that the majority of new power plant infrastructure being planned for the next few years is already designed to be renewable energy, and the EPA's goal doesn't seem too far off.

That being said, the U.S.'s recent reductions in power plant emissions don't exist in a bubble. Much of the coal that is no longer being burned in the U.S. (because of the cheap natural gas) is just being sold to other countries and burned there—it's not exactly a net win.

And, the Washington Post says that, even under the new rules, 30 percent of U.S. energy generation in 2030 will still be coming from the dirtiest source—coal.

How does this compare to other emissions reduction policies?

In terms of absolute emissions reductions, the new rules governing power plant emissions are actually quite strong. The new power plant rules would reduce emissions by 500 million metric tons per year. The agency's existing rules to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks, on the other hand, are expected to mitigate around 6 billion metric tons between 2012 and 2025 (460 million metric tons per year), says the Washington Post.

So climate change is fixed, right?

Not even close.

If the EPA rules go through as-is, they won't reduce carbon emissions enough to stop global climate change. There's an argument to be made, as Think Progress does, that these rules could spur other countries to similarly reduce their emissions. But, as they stand, the rules should reduce global emissions by around 1.8 percent.

To keep global warming anywhere near the 2° Celsius target that world leaders have agreed upon, global carbon emissions need to hit their peak, and then start shrinking, by around 2040 at the latest. A 1.8 percent drop in global emissions could help the world to level off its emissions, slowing the problem. But a slow-down is different than a stop and a reversal. The new rules are a step, but they're certainly not a panacea.

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