Research Desk estimates: How much can the EPA, California and New England do to fight climate change?
By Dylan Matthews
How much could we reduce America's carbon footprint with only EPA regulations and state level regulations in say California and the New England States?
This is a hard question largely because the EPA has yet to roll out all of its anticipated greenhouse gas regulations. Back in February, when hope for a climate bill started to really dim, Brad Plumer wrote a great primer on exactly what the EPA's game plan is here, and what it can likely accomplish. The takeaway is that while regulations can likely make a big dent in emissions before 2020, staving off some of the more catastrophic effects of climate change, long-term emissions reduction (say, to 2050) requires a carbon price, which only Congress can impose.
That said, we can compare some rough estimates. The Waxman-Markey bill and the American Power Act in the Senate both aim for a 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 (though the Senate bill initially aimed for 20 percent) from 2005 levels. This amounts to a reduction of about 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases a year (measured in tons of carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent). The leaked version of Jeff Bingaman's utilities-only cap (acquired by Andrew Restuccia at the Washington Independent) projects a 15 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions among power-generating industries. Given that those emissions totaled about 2.36 billion megatons in 2005, the utilities-only cap would reduce emissions by 354 million metric tons a year from the 2005 baseline. Limiting the sector, scope of emissions (carbon dioxide vs. greenhouse gases generally) and having a lower percentage reduction goal combine to make the bill quite a bit less effective.
The one EPA number we do have is their emissions reduction estimate from increased fuel economy standards for cars. They estimate that the regulations will reduce emissions by a total of 960 million metric tons over the lifetimes of cars sold from 2012 to 2016. That number pales in comparison with the ones from legislation, especially when you consider that it adds together emissions reductions from 2012 to whenever the last car made in 2016 stop working.
The state-level picture is varied. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 mandates (PDF) a reduction in yearly emissions of 174 million metric tons a year by 2020, about half those produced by the national Bingaman proposal in a state with only about 12 percent of America's population. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) sets a cap on emissions in some northeastern states and Canadian provinces (New York, Massachusetts, Newfoundland) that it reduces (PDF) by 18 million tons (17 million metric tons) by 2018. While emissions are currently lower than that cap, that could be a result of the economic downturn, not polluters taking early action to cut emissions. If the latter is the case, it's hard to say how much of an effect RGGI compared against the recession.
Again, it is a bit early to be making this comparison without the rollout of the EPA's regulations. But suffice it to say, an economy-wide cap on all greenhouse gas emissions is much preferable to the Bingaman bill, to state-level regulation and probably to EPA limits as well.
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