To Start Making Things Better, You Have to Stop Making them Worse
Posted February 22, 2013
To start making things better, you have to stop making them worse.
I was there wearing two hats. I mean that both literally—it was cold enough that I had a ski cap on underneath my NRDC “Forward on Climate” baseball cap—and figuratively. I’m both a scientist who’s studied the carbon cycle—the way the land, the sea and the atmosphere take up carbon dioxide pollution—and I’m a parent whose newly adult children are inheriting a world that is increasingly devastated by intense, carbon-fueled storms, droughts and wildfires.
The message we demonstrators delivered to President Obama with our 80,000 or so wool-socked feet on Sunday makes sense from both perspectives: To start making the climate better, we have to stop making it worse.
President Obama has the opportunity to do just that, using executive authority alone, by blocking the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and by putting forward new regulations that reduce America’s largest source of heat-trapping pollution—power plant emissions.
Already, his clean energy policies have helped reduce American carbon dioxide emission levels by about 13 percent from 2005 levels. (A myth-busting new analysis by Trevor Houser and Shashank Mohan of the Rhodium Group shows that cheap natural gas is responsible for less than 40 percent of this decline.) Taking these next steps forward can build on that progress to hit the president’s 17 percent reduction target by 2020.
There’s been some debate in the press recently about whether the Keystone XL pipeline fight is a distraction from the what needs to be done to solve the climate problem overall. So let’s set the record straight. When tens of thousands of voices chanted on Sunday “Hey, Obama, we don’t want no climate drama!” we weren’t asking the president to reject Keystone and then returned to the regularly scheduled fossil fueled energy program. We were saying: When you’re in a hole, you have to stop digging before you can climb out. To put it another way, the rally was called “Forward on Climate,” and to move forward first you have to stop moving backward.
No one in front of the White House on Sunday was under the illusion that not going backward is good enough. But make no mistake—approving the Keystone pipeline would make the hole much deeper. Building the pipeline is critical to oil industry plans to expand tar sands production from 2 million barrels per day to more than 6 million barrels per day by 2030. Based on the State Department’s environmental assessment of Keystone, those extra 4 million barrels per day represent more than 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide going into the air from extraction through combustion.
The State Department assessment argues that tar sands oil would simply displace other oil sources. In that case, the extra emissions would be from tar sands’ 17 percent higher well-to-wheels emissions rate, compared to average crudes used in the U.S. By that logic, the extra emissions would be “only” 100 million metric tons. In the long run, however, the only way to avoid catastrophic climate disruption is to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. And tar sands oil should be among the first fossil fuels we decide to leave alone. So the total pollution from tar sands—not just the incremental emissions compared to other sources of oil—is the better measure of the carbon that would be unlocked by Keystone.
Cutting off market access by stopping pipelines is already limiting tar sands production, as NRDC President Frances Beinecke notes in her recent post. Stopping Keystone as it traverses the Canadian border and some of our country’s most sensitive farmlands is a key element in that increasingly successful strategy. Meanwhile industry claims about the job increases and gas-price reductions from the pipeline have already been debunked.
While stopping Keystone is vital to our children’s futures—your kids and mine, Mr. President—we must go further. The good news is, we can, by limiting power plant pollution under the Clean Air Act.
Fossil-fuel-fired power plants in the U.S. are responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide pollution. Under a plan NRDC put forward in December, we could cut U.S. emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. The plan provides great flexibility to states and utilities, and offers benefits to every American.
Its benefits—worth between $25 and $60 billion in 2020—far outweigh the plan’s costs—about $4 billion. Implementing it will save tens of thousands of lives through reductions in air pollution. And it will drive investments in energy efficiency and clean energy that will create tens of thousands of new jobs across the nation.
What KC Golden of Climate Solutions in the Pacific Northwest has termed “the Keystone Principle” should be our guide as we evaluate proposed energy projects like Keystone. As it should when we assess new plans to protect our climate and our kids. Let’s start making things better; let’s stop making things worse.
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