Guest opinion: Clean power, methane control good for all
In its final two years, the Obama administration has renewed efforts to accomplish the president’s last major policy goal – addressing the global threat from climate change with domestic and international actions. The U.S. has been a leader in international negotiations with countries with divergent interests, but there is a growing recognition that all countries will suffer with inaction.
In the face of a recalcitrant Congress, it has meant implementing important national policy changes through regulations authorized under existing legislation.
The key international achievement was the successful conclusion of the Paris climate change negotiations in December. At home, steps have included an increase in the fuel efficiency standards in 2011; the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Oil and Natural Gas Air Pollution Standards; the BLM’s Methane and Waste Reduction Rule, which is currently open for public comment; and a moratorium on new federal coal leases.
All of these steps come with multiple benefits.
Higher fuel efficiency standards give car makers a level playing field for developing new technologies that reduce the fuel needed and the CO2 generated per mile driven.
The Clean Power Plan provides carrots (and sticks) to the energy industry to replace old coal-fired power plants with newer technology that will result in cleaner air, and to find economically viable technologies that capture carbon dioxide and store it underground.
The coal industry is in big trouble financially, but not because of this plan. Another new technology, fracking, has been instrumental in coal’s decline by reducing the cost of competing natural gas.
The EPA and BLM regulations address longstanding concerns about wasting our natural resources. Why bring a valuable resource, natural gas, to the surface with drilling and then let it escape to the atmosphere, where its methane content contributes to global warming and its other compounds harm human health?
By requiring monitoring for leaks and use of best practice technologies, this waste, and its effects on global warming and human health, can be substantially reduced. Although Colorado has already implemented similar rules, it will still suffer from pollutants blown in from other states until they follow in Colorado’s footsteps. And because these regulations are nationwide, they give industry a single regulatory environment rather than 50 different ones.
And what about the Paris climate change agreement? The new negotiating approach used for the Paris agreement called for all countries to submit plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, not just rich countries. Why would they do this, when there are costs associated with these plans? The answers include a recognition of the future costs of climate change, the environmental costs of existing technologies (for example, China and India signed on, in part because of the air pollution problems they suffer from today), and because of the leadership of the U.S. in reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.
With a successful conclusion of the Paris climate change negotiations, the hard work of implementing emissions reductions begins. At Paris, countries submitted initial mitigation plans, and they agreed to common methods for assessing progress. These agreements now make it possible for international partners and local citizens to see how well governments are doing, and to apply political pressure when they are not meeting their obligations.
What about effects in the Grand Valley? A recent study by the regional National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office reported rising winter temperatures over the past century, in line with what climate models predict. Staff from the Colorado Mesa University Ruth Hutchins Powell Water Center have identified a range of local effects of future global warming – on streamflow, skiing and other water-related activities. The effects also harm agriculture. Our vines and fruit trees require a certain period of cold winter weather to blossom in the next growing season. If winter weather trends continue, new cultivars will be needed for our stone fruits, apples will be more difficult to grow and vineyards will need to switch to more heat-tolerant varieties.
The future is an uncertain place, and the geologic record of our planet’s history shows great fluctuations in climate and greenhouse gas concentrations. But we don’t live in geologic time. Our species, and most of the plants and animals around us, evolved in a period when the CO2 in the air was about 300 parts per million. In the 160 years since the Industrial Revolution began using large amounts of fossil fuels, atmospheric CO2 has risen to over 400 parts per million; a level not seen in a million years. The signs of the resulting global warming are increasingly obvious; global records for temperature are exceeded every year, growing zones for plants are shifting north, some migratory birds are finding their typical food insects have already disappeared on arrival.
The recent steps taken by the administration and others are positive, albeit modest, in terms of their greenhouse gas reductions. But they have other benefits – reduced waste of a natural resource, cleaner air, fewer toxic emissions. Furthermore, our actions provide leadership to the rest of the world. And as is often the case, these actions are likely to cost less than initially thought and benefits greater than initially estimated. In other words, they are good for the world and good for us.
Gerald Nelson is a Grand Valley resident and professor emeritus, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published widely on the effects of climate change on global food security.
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