The timing is embarrassing. As Ohio retreats from its energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, the Obama White House unveils a draft rule to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change, placing a heavy emphasis on states designing their own plans for compliance. So, just the kind of steps the state will need to meet the new rule have been put on hold for two years.
Does that help explain the rush at the Statehouse to approve the legislation, an awareness that state lawmakers would have appeared even more out of touch?
Carbon emissions in the United States already have fallen 10 percent since 2005, largely due to the recession and a bounty of natural gas, a less potent greenhouse gas producer. The president also has launched fuel-efficiency regulations for cars and trucks. Now the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls for adding to the effort with new rules for reducing carbon emissions at existing coal-fired power plants. It proposes cutting emissions 30 percent by 2030 from levels in 2005.
Even before the Monday unveiling, power companies and other critics warned about the high costs such restrictions would bring. Yet the amount often cited, $60 billion a year or so, rates as a tiny fraction of the overall economy, or something the country can afford. Then, there is the greater expense in ducking the challenge, picking up the tab for torrential rains and other damaging effects, lacking the necessary insurance policy against the risk of disaster.
Another line of criticism points to a “war on coal.” Actually, the coal industry has been most deeply affected by the rise of natural gas. Coal will continue to be part of the country’s energy portfolio, currently the source of 40 percent of electricity. At the same time, it faces a changing marketplace, the priority on mitigating its harm, including the arrival of much cleaner and increasingly more competitive fuel sources. A country truly determined to confront climate change, sooner rather later, would look more aggressively to nuclear power.
The hard reality is that for all the concern about the EPA proposal, it is ambitious merely in a political way. Scientists have advised that the international community rally to prevent the planet’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Centigrade above the preindustrial level. That goal seems more beyond reach today.
The president still talks about an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Hard to see how the country gets there in two decades, or from the 30 percent in 2030.
Yet advances must be made, and the strongest aspect of the EPA proposal is the political element, the president pushing the matter front and center, Washington in a better position to press other countries, such as China and India, to move forward, even join a concrete global agreement on addressing climate change. This is a global problem, and now the White House has stepped forward to show that it is ready to lead. To be sure, this is just a beginning. Still, the way is open, states with helpful flexibility, the understanding more plain: Action now promises to be less costly than waiting while the risk builds and the trouble deepens.