You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure

Yesterday, EPA announced the public release of reported greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from large facilities across the country. Under legislation signed by President George W. Bush, most large sources of GHG emissions, including refineries, power plants, chemical plants, car manufacturers, and factories emitting more than 25,000 tons of CO2 equivalent a year, have been reporting their annual emissions electronically to EPA since 2010, while small sources are specifically exempted from the rule. Now, in accordance with the law, EPA is making that data public.

Some similar information was public already. Power plants have been required to report their CO2 emissions since the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, while many other companies have voluntarily reported their emissions through programs like the Carbon Disclosure Project

What makes this new effort stand out is the comprehensiveness of the data now publicly available at one place, EPA’s online tool. Despite the potential – and perhaps expectation – for such a database to be dry, nerdy, and boring, the tool is, in fact, pretty fun to explore. You can easily search for facilities anywhere in the US, look at maps from a variety of perspectives, and use graphing tools to work out all sorts of comparisons, making the relevant data far more personalized. For example, within a few minutes of poking around online, I found that the largest emitter in my hometown is a power plant obvious from the highway, but the next largest is a closed landfill I didn’t even know was there.

Not only is the information fun to look at, but making this data public has enormous potential to encourage reductions in emissions. As we and others have pointed out, there are clear similarities between this online tool and the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which first became public in 1989 and is now available online as well. TRI reports on the release of over 650 toxic chemicals from industrial facilities into the land, air, or water or if those chemicals are transported offsite, recycled, or avoided through pollution prevention programs.

Since TRI data became publicly available, it has inspired a variety of responses. Companies have worked harder to reduce toxic releases, some voluntarily and some due to public pressure, and they have a credible metric to prove to the public that they have done so. To get those reductions, companies sometimes need new pollution control technology, and the manufacturers of that technology can more easily identify potential customers with this public information. On a broader level, public policy is better informed by this data, as pollution can be highlighted in certain areas, compared, understood, and regulated, if need be, by localities and states.

Like the release of the TRI data more than 20 years ago, the GHG information now available from EPA will likely offer new pathways for reductions in GHG emissions. Many companies, including members of C2ES’s Business Environmental Leadership Council, have long recognized the need to reduce emissions and disclosed them voluntarily. Requiring all major emitters to disclose this information will further the understanding within the business community that GHG emissions are something to avoided. Companies that have avoided the issue in the past are now regularly measuring their GHG emissions and are aware that the data is being made available to the public.

In response, pollution control and energy efficiency firms will be able to more readily identify potential partnerships with the largest emitters, and when new technologies are put into place, companies will have a clear, credible metric to demonstrate to the public their progress in reducing emissions.

Most importantly, the reporting rule sets us on a path to stronger action to protect the climate. This transparent data provides the necessary foundation that future market-based policies will need to function well. On the whole, having this information can assist policymakers in better understanding where emitters are located and how new policy options will impact them, which will assist our country as we start to rethink national policy to reduce GHG emissions and confront climate change. In turn, the public now has a better basis to demand accountability from elected officials and companies for emissions reductions. Turning to the future, the question is what we, as a country, will do with the data now that we have access to it.

Michael Turbman is a Senior Fellow for C2ES.