The Obama administration's new effort to reduce carbon emissions from power plants is pragmatic, smart and overdue. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule is already coming under attack from those who argue that it is economic suicide to force expensive and unilateral changes in the power grid just to lower carbon emissions in the United States. Those critics would have U.S. utilities do nothing about global warming simply because their counterparts in other countries aren't doing enough. That reasoning is perverse and unpersuasive.
Federal law compels the EPA to reduce harmful air pollutants, and carbon dioxide from power plants is the largest contributor by far to changes in the climate that could be ruinous to the planet. But the agency isn't seeking to cap the amount of CO2 coming out of smokestacks, as it has done with toxins such as mercury. Instead, it has proposed a unique emissions target for each state based on what the EPA believes local utilities can achieve. Exactly how the target would be met would be up to each state, but the pressure would be on utilities to shift away from the coal-fired plants that are the biggest carbon polluters.
Those plants produced 45% of U.S. electricity in 2010, or 5 percentage points less than they did at their peak in 2005, while coal use has grown rapidly around the world. Yet the United States still ranks as the second-largest carbon emitter. Even if lower emissions from U.S. plants aren't sufficient to stop global warming, they are a necessary part of the solution. And no one should expect the likes of China and India to do more to curb their plants' emissions if the U.S. isn't willing to act.
Some environmental groups, in fact, are disturbed that the EPA didn't propose larger cuts. Instead, the agency wisely based the targets on available methods for reducing emissions, which made the proposed rule less ambitious but more reasonable. Taking a cue from California, which is well on its way to meeting the agency's proposed target, the agency also let states look beyond their utilities' smokestacks for ways to reduce emissions. These include cap-and-trade systems for C02 and energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.
The EPA's expansive approach is certain to be tested in court by those upset about the prospect of more expensive electricity. Reducing emissions doesn't necessarily mean forcing consumers to spend more on energy, however. Just look at California, where efficiency standards have held monthly electric bills almost 25% below the national average even though electricity rates are among the highest in the country.