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Addressing Carbon Pollution from Power Plants Is Vital for Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change

Future U.S. power suppliers will need to limit their carbon pollution, thanks to new standards announced today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The proposed emissions standards for new power plants are an important measure in implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan (announced in June) to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming.

EPA’s announcement comes against the backdrop of our deepening understanding of the science of climate change. It also arrives as we witness multiple extreme weather events that present a vivid picture of what we are likely to experience in a changing world. This summer, we saw record rainfalls on the southeast coast, massive wildfires in California and Idaho, and most recently, deadly flooding in Colorado. These extreme events--to say nothing of their massive economic cost--remind us of why the United States has an obligation to cut its emissions.

As we’ve previously written, the President’s plan recommits the United States to meeting its international commitment of reducing its GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. With these new standards--along with additional recent steps toward increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions of potent greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons and methane--the Administration is making progress in all of the sectors WRI identified in our report earlier this year.

No Surprises – and Flexibility

These standards are by no means a surprise. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs, scientists from the agency determined that the gases that cause global warming pose a threat to human health and welfare.

The rules themselves were developed over several years and followed close consultation with multiple stakeholders—including utilities and state officials—and the review of more than 2.5 million public comments on an earlier proposal. The EPA has provided some flexibility in the way that power plants could comply with the new standards.

For instance, future coal plants could be built using advanced technologies that would ensure greater efficiency and lower emissions. The main option would be for future plants to include carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. One option for future coal plants that will be allowed under the emissions standard is for new plants to average their emissions over seven years, meaning that a new coal power plant could be built tomorrow so long as the plant is retrofitted with CCS within its first few years of operation. Or, instead of capturing 90 percent of the CO2 emissions, the level of reductions anticipated in most of the currently planned CCS projects, a plant could install a partial capture system.

Further, power producers are already facing market pressure to move away from investing in new coal power plants given the current low price of natural gas and the greater efficiency of natural gas power plants. According to the U.S Energy Information Administration, over the next decade, utilities are planning to bring online just 10 coal-fired generators, compared to 244 new gas-fired generators. In some areas of the country, renewables generation is also out-competing new coal generation.

An Important First Step, but Standards for Existing plants Are Key

U.S. electricity generation is responsible for one-third of all GHG emissions—the largest opportunity for reductions in any single sector. Ensuring that future power plants reduce their contribution to climate change is important, but reducing emissions from the existing fleet would have a far greater impact. With the rules for new power plants in place, the EPA can now turn its attention to developing flexible standards that can achieve significant, cost-effective emissions reductions from existing plants – which are expected to come next year.

Together, these standards will help to ensure that we aren’t leaving future generations with a dangerously overheated planet.

  • LEARN MORE: Download WRI's report on how the United States can meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

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