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Research Desk estimates: How much can the EPA, California and New England do to fight climate change?

By Dylan Matthews

mike777 asks:

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.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2010; 3:18 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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--"While emissions are currently lower than that cap, that could be a result of the economic downturn"--

If Obamanomics keeps on track, we could reduce emissions to pre-1950 levels in under a decade.

Posted by: msoja | July 13, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

We should simply adopt the successful North Korean model of government and then we will have a tiny carbon footprint.

That seems to be the direction that Obama is headed.

But what do I know. I am a Tea Partier. So apparently my disagreements with the policies of this administration are definitively racists, even though the smartest new leaders of the Republican party appear to me to be leaders like Col Allen West, Angela McGlowan, Nikki Haley, and Bobby Jindal.

Go figure. Apparently racism has much less to do with the actual race of the leadership and more about what ever the group NAACP deems it to be.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 14, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I'm tooting my own horn a bit here as a co-author, but if you're looking for a pretty thorough breakdown of the state level picture Environment America's "America on the Move" report, which breaks down state (and some national) policies beyond just overt caps, is a pretty good summary of the impact some of these things can have. The long link:

Posted by: RobK_ | July 14, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

A well-constructed economy-wide carbon cap is going to be more effective at reducing emissions than EPA regulation. Relatedly, magic carbon eating fairies would also be more effective. And equally likely to happen.

EPA has a structure for regulating emissions from the major industrial sources driving our appalling high emissions rate. That's in place right now. It's not subject to Republican filibuster-driven concessions. It's not subject to Nelson & Lieberman's self-dealing.

Frankly, any comprehensive climate bill that could actually come out of this Congress or the next one will not be worth signing. It's time to focus on trying to make EPA work, not on pining for a new economy-wide structure.

Posted by: NS12345 | July 14, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"carbon eating fairies"

Even if one were to believe that carbon emissions were the chief cause of any increased global warming(a mighty big "if") then I know of know estimate that comes close to suggesting that even the most aggressive carbon-trading scheme would have a net effect on limiting carbon in a way meaningful to buy even a decade of time before Armageddon.

The truth is, even AGW were true, carbon taxing will simply not save us.

Carbon Eating Fairies would be the most effective approach for our society to explore. It is quite likely that if we are emitting carbon in a way that is having a detrimental effect, given that every animal is emitting carbon and volcanoes are emitting carbon, the idea that we suddenly drive cars that get 60 mpg instead of 20 is nothing but a liberal panacea....its living in unreality....

It is a cause-du-jour to rally liberal away from meaningful things such as Hugo Chavez and Vladamir Putin's steady extremination of human freedom in their quadrants of the earth, just as China and Iran are doing.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 14, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 14, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

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