Can Carbon Be Cut Without Climate Legislation?

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Carbon cap-and-trade is dead—at least for this political lifetime. And while the circular firing squad among Democrats and greens has already begun, it’s worth taking a deep breath and remembering that there are other tools that can be used to deal with climate change. As TIME’s Joe Klein points out, the Supreme Court ruled more than three years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has already begun to effectively regulate carbon emissions from automobiles with its tougher fuel efficiency standards, but it’s not yet clear how the agency might work to regulate emissions from electric utilities or other sectors.

As a new report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows, regulations could have a widely varying effect on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over the coming two decades, depending on how aggressive the government wants to be—but  even the tightest rules would be unlikely to reduce emissions enough to avoid dangerous climate change. The WRI authors divide potential regulatory approaches into three self-explanatory categories—”Lackluster,” “Middle-of-the-Road,” and “Go-Getter”—and looked at the potential for both state and federal action. (The reports notes that 25 states have already taken action on greenhouse gas emissions on their own.)

The results: if the federal government uses all the weapons at its disposal, the U.S. could reduce national greenhouse gases by around 12% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 22% by 2030. That falls to 8% and 11% if the government tries a moderate approach, and just 5% and 2% if Washington goes for the weakest approach, as this chart shows:

From World Resources Institute

While most of the focus is on the electricity sector and auto transport, the EPA—together with other agencies—will have a number of tools they can use. The Department of Energy can improve the minimum standards it sets for appliance efficiency, while the EPA can improve land and water management—landfills alone emit significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In fact, the lesser greenhouse gases—basically everything but carbon dioxide—will prove to be a useful place for regulations to start. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can be up to 20,000 times more potent than CO2, and they’re emitted from refrigerators—especially older ones. Tighter standards—using existing technology—can cut back on those gases.

But the game is ultimately about carbon dixoide—and that means power plants. Here the EPA could exercise its New Source Performance Standard—essentially the rules it sets to reduce pollutants from electricity generation. The EPA could require coal plants to operate at higher levels of efficiency—one way to cut carbon—or it could mandate biomass cofiring, which has power plants burn renewable biomass in addition to fossil fuels. (In theory that can be carbon netural—you release carbon when you burn biomass, but new trees and plants essentially offset those gases—though the practice has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months.) The EPA could even devise a limited carbon cap-and-trade system on its own authority, though it wouldn’t look like the more ambitious cap-and-trade program that was passed by the House last month and which was being considered by the Senate. “There would be no offsets and no intersectoral trading,” says Nicholas Bianco of WRI, one of the co-authors of the report. “The EPA has been clear that they have the authority on this.”

The question is whether they’ll ultimately be able to excercise it. Both President Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have said repeatedly that they don’t really want to use a regulatory system to cut greenhouse gas emissions; they wanted Congress to pass comprehensive carbon legislation. The threat of EPA action was meant to be just that—a threat to be used to push reluctant senators into supporting climate legislation, as if the EPA were some kind of regulatory bogeyman (which many in the conservative movement seem to believe anyway). The problem is that conservatives may have called the EPA’s bluff—at this point, regulation at the federal level, and action by the states, seems to be the only possible route to cutting carbon. And climate skeptics know it—Republicans are already gearing up to stop the EPA from exercising its (Supreme Court-recognized) power to regulate carbon, and its likely that any controversial actions might be fought by business interests in the courts, potentially for years.

So regulation is a second-best alternative, at best, and the WRI report makes it clear that even the most aggressive actions would fall short of the steep emission cuts that science demands. (It’s also worth noting, as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, that lack of Congressional carbon legislation will make it virtually impossible for any global climate deal to be made—though frankly that was looking pretty unlikely anyway.) There are smart, smaller borer actions that can and must be taken—the Department of Energy is urging property owners to adopt white roofs, which can save electricity costs and offset carbon emissions. But we’ll need much more. “A federal cap on emissions with a long-term declining pathway is the most certain way to get reductions,” says Bianco. That’s not looking very likely.