Climate Compass Blog

The new coal plant standard

With all the fuss around the EPA’s proposed carbon dioxide standard for new power plants, you would be forgiven for missing the following line: “EPA projects that this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.” That’s right, the standard will likely have little to no effect before the date by which EPA will be required by law to revise it.

Why? As I recently told the National Journal, because the most credible projections have natural gas so inexpensive for the next several years that very few power companies are planning to build new coal plants – compared with the 150 natural gas power plants in the works. Pulling the proposed standard wouldn’t change that reality. In fact, the one coal plant being built today includes carbon capture and storage (CCS), and is expected to meet the tough carbon standard EPA has proposed. A handful of additional coal plants with CCS may move forward in the next several years, as well.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Getting clear on climate facts

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) poised to release its Fifth Assessment of the science underpinning our understanding of climate change, it’s useful to take a step back and recap some of the “big picture” facts.

What is already clear from the science:

  • Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases act to warm the planet.
  • Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere due to emissions from human activities.
  • The Earth has been warming during the past century. The amount and speed of the warming is unusual compared to past records.
  • Humans’ emissions of greenhouse gases are largely responsible for this warming.
  • If emission rates continue, the warming in the 21st century will be much more significant than the warming in the previous century.

Go green when you go back to school

Millions of students, from kindergarten through college, are heading back to class, and the start of a new school year is always accompanied by the need for new stuff.

This is a costly time for families; the National Retail Federation estimates an average of $635 per student is spent on back to school apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics. In addition to looking for what’s chic or cheap, students and parents might also want to consider having a lighter impact on the environment.

Here are some “CliffsNotes “on how to be a little more eco-friendly this fall:

Headwinds for coal

In a significant shift, government-run institutions financing overseas development have taken a series of steps this summer to sharply curtail their investments in coal-fired power plants.

In June, President Obama said that the United States would no longer finance coal plants through the US Export-Import Bank unless they used carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology or there was no other option for the poorest countries to generate electricity. In July, the World Bank announced it would provide financial assistance to new coal projects “only in rare circumstances.” And later last month, the European Investment Bank (EIB) said it would stop funding new and refurbished coal plants unless they emit less than 550g carbon dioxide/kWh (~1,200 lb carbon dioxide/MWh), about half of what the average U.S. coal plant emits.

It makes sense that financial decisions should factor in environmental impacts: Continued investment in an energy source that is only going to lead to increased costs from extreme weather and other climate change impacts makes no sense. As a practical matter, however, these steps by themselves are unlikely to slow the coal plant-building binge in China and India, or make significant reductions in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Update on social cost of carbon was overdue

Some in Congress have reacted strongly to the Obama administration’s recent increase of the estimated value of the “social cost of carbon.” House proposals range from re-examining the process used to develop the estimate to barring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from using the figure in developing regulations.

The social cost of carbon is one of many economic tools devised by experts and regulators to better weigh the relative costs and benefits of proposed government actions.

In its most basic sense, the social cost of carbon is the estimated economic cost of the impacts caused to society by climate change. In other words, it’s an attempt to estimate the costs associated with rising sea levels, more frequent and intense heat waves, and other climate-related consequences from increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.