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Baby steps to stem greenhouse gases

Sarah Gardner Feb 24, 2010

Baby steps to stem greenhouse gases

Sarah Gardner Feb 24, 2010


Bob Moon: Today, President Obama asked a gathering of top CEOs to support his economic agenda. And high on his list is global warming. Obama said putting a price on carbon pollution is a critical part of moving toward clean energy. But if Vegas bookies were taking bets on passing a tough federal climate law this year, the odds wouldn’t favor it.

The Copenhagen talks already rolled snake eyes, and the recession and political resistance at home make serious greenhouse gas cuts unlikely. So, what now? Here’s Sarah Gardner from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

SARAH GARDNER: Right now it seems like the most effective global warming fighter is, frankly, the recession.

MARY NICHOLS: Ironically the fact that the economy is in such weak condition helps with the emission reduction goals.

Mary Nichols is a key environmental regulator in California.

NICHOLS: Because we’re not transporting as much stuff, we’re not exporting as much stuff. You know, our factories are not working at the same pace, and so forth. And sadly that means reaching the goals that were in the Waxman-Markey legislation is actually easier.

Waxman-Markey is shorthand for climate legislation the House passed last year. Its main goal is deeply slashing heat-trapping pollutants from power plants, cars and the like by mid-century. That’s a tall order, even with the help of a feeble economy. And Senate passage of a strong climate bill is, at best, uncertain.

Jeremy Symons at the National Wildlife Federation says without a federal limit on global warming emissions, the U.S. can kiss that goal goodbye.

JEREMY SYMONS: At the end of the day without a level playing field from the federal government to say, here’s the game plan, if you invest in clean energy, you’ll profit, we’ll see more of the same.

So without a federal mandate, can any progress be made? Conservationists say yes, but it’s babysteps. Many states now require more of their electricity come from solar, nuclear and wind, for example. And they are mandating more energy-efficient buildings and appliances.

Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins says energy-efficiency standards can cut greenhouse gases at a relatively low cost.

ROBERT STAVINS: But only so much. If one wants to achieve the targets, for example, that people talk about for the U.S., which is reducing emissions by 2050, 80 percent below the 2005 levels, energy efficiency is absolutely not going to do it.

Same goes for those state laws on how much electricity should come from renewables. States don’t want to enforce them too quickly because they can raise electricity prices too high too fast. That leaves two other alternatives. The EPA is planning to regulate global warming gases soon, but lawsuits are almost sure to bog that down. The other way is for states and regions to put their own caps on those emissions.

Mary Nichols is helping to craft California’s historic law to fight global warming.

NICHOLS: It’s not just a matter of can we do it or is it technically feasible, but can we do it in a way that does not disadvantage California or make us less competitive versus other states.

Nichols is hinting at resistance to these state efforts. California opponents are threatening a ballot initiative this fall to suspend the state’s global warming law. And just this month Arizona’s governor pulled her state out of a regional program to limit greenhouse gases. She said it would cripple Arizona’s economy.

But even without a recession, Harvard’s Robert Stavins says making big leaps to combat global warming is inherently problematic. He says typically it takes an ecological disaster that’s easily observed and understood to pass groundbreaking environmental laws.

STAVINS: Climate is different than that, and it’s different than the other environmental problems that we’ve dealt with in our democratic system.

Stavins says the “slow-drip” nature of a warming planet isn’t like, say, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. That event spurred a grassroots environmental movement in this country. He says combating climate change requires political leadership from the top taking chances. And that’s why we haven’t gotten too far.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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