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Carbon Limits Another Victory in War on Pollution

Frances Beinecke's picture

Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC. Under Frances's leadership, the organization has launched a new strategic campaign that sharply focuses NRDC's efforts on curbing global...

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Carbon Limits and Pollution

As part of his climate action plan, President Obama has pledged to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. This breakthrough will help millions of American breathe easier. Carbon pollution causes climate change, and climate change leads to higher levels of smog—pollutants that inflame the lung’s airways, trigger asthma attacks, and cause respiratory disease. The American Academy of Pediatricians says carbon pollution is especially dangerous for children, because smog can permanently damage their lungs.

Many parents know how frightening bad air days can be. Eileen Geoffrey lives with her family in Pittsburgh, and her son Daniel almost died from an asthma attack “that left his chest so tight he wasn’t even wheezing.” Eileen has to keep the windows of their home closed on most warm days because the air quality threatens Daniel’s health.

Carbon limits will help lower this risk for the 25 million Americans living with asthma—including my son-in-law—and reduce the threat of extreme weather brought on by climate change.

And yet some members of the fossil fuel industry discount these enormous benefits. They claim President Obama’s climate plan is a war on coal, when in fact it’s a war on pollution. It’s a campaign to protect the health of our families and the future of our children. America has successfully used the Clean Air Act to reduce every other pollutant from power plants. Now it’s time to close the carbon loophole and unleash the next wave of energy innovation.


Innovation has been the key to reducing pollution and cutting costs for the past four decades. Nearly every time the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new public health standard, skeptics said it couldn’t be done. And yet over and over again, they were proven wrong. Industries found new, cost-effective ways to cut pollution and save lives.

When the EPA proposed phasing out ozone-depleting CFCs, for instance, the chemical industry predicted refrigerators would fail in America’s supermarkets, hospitals and schools. Yet companies succeeded in meeting the first round of standards up to six years earlier and at a cost of 30 percent less than expected. And when the EPA decided to reduce acid rain pollution, utilities leaders called it a “tragic mistake.” Yet thanks to new efficient scrubbers and other shifts, the cost of reducing acid rain pollution turned out to be about 80 percent lower than predicted, according to an MIT study. Meanwhile, the acid rain program has generated $80 billion in health benefits every year and saves nearly 19,000 lives annually.

America’s innovators will make similar leaps in carbon reduction. They will find new ways to control carbon pollution from power plants, and they will advance low-carbon energy technology.

Take the solar industry, for instance. China may be pulling ahead in producing first generation solar technologies, but America is already leading the next generation of solar breakthroughs. The National Renewable Energy Lab helped pioneer a thin-film panel that’s far cheaper to make than traditional silicon panels, and now US companies are building factories in America to expand this technology, exporting these products to China, Germany, and Spain, and creating more home-grown jobs. Already, nearly 120,000 Americans work in the solar industry.

Meanwhile, sectors across the economy—from manufacturing to commercial real estate—are figuring out new ways to save energy and money at the same time. Efficiency will play a key in helping utilities meet carbon standards, and many have begun scaling up investments in efficiency programs, increasing from $2.7 billion in 2007 to nearly $7 billion in 2011. In Ohio alone, utility efficiency efforts created more than 3,800 jobs by 2011 and will create more than 32,000 jobs by 2025. Such programs translate into customer savings: families could save up to $700 a year on electric bills when carbon standards are in place thanks to efficiency measures.

President Obama’s climate plan will unleash more of these cost-saving solutions. It will spur technological innovations and help America modernize our power fleet.  Some fossil fuel companies don’t want to move into the future and don’t want to operate cleaner. They claim it isn’t possible, but I know it is, because we have done it before.

America has used our know-how to clean up smog, mercury, acid rain, lead and soot. Now we can do the same with carbon pollution. And we can protect the health of our families and create economic growth in the process.

Photo Credit: Carbon Limits/shutterstock

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Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Jun 30, 2013

Renewables can’t possibly scale to supplant coal in the time left to do something real to stop global warming.  Non-hydro renewables (wind, solar, biofuels, and geothermal) account for less than 3% of electricity in the US.  For baseload generation with no blackouts, there is only coal, hydro, and nuclear.  Hydro is maxed out, nuclear is scary, and coal is what we’re stuck with to keep the lights on.

Renewables advocates have been driving climate policy for too long and have framed the global warming issue as a drive to shut down coal generation.  The embattled power industry has been stubbornly primitive.  It’s become partisan trench warfare with ignorant zealots vs. pollutocrats.  The President’s speech shows that he’s paying attention to realities and will be focusing on coal emissions,  not money pit distractions like renewables.  He’s trying to unify the country for a big effort, and the coal power industry should rally to the flag instead of sassing the President and hoping for failure.  

What a President can do is limited.  King Canute commanding the tide to cease illustrates this point.  Without the technology to achieve emissions targets, edicts will only make him look silly and ineffective, so I presume President Obama has studied the technology and sees a path to the Promised Land.  Smokestack CO2, mercury, and dust could be captured and safely disposed of (I believe, anyway), but not with presently available technology.  So how do we find and develop something radically better than the old “clean coal” prescription of chemical capture and underground storage?  Black Swan disruptive technology, not tweaks, is what we need.

The $25 million prize for CO2 capture and disposal at gas plants is an encouraging sign, and so is the appointment of Ernie Moniz as Secretary of Energy.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 30, 2013

President Obama’s recent announced Climate policy does have the potential to further reduce U.S. carbon emissions in the future.  The costs and benefits will likely face significant debate as he issues the executive orders needed to implement the policy (around Congress).  While your post does a good job of reiterating some of the talking points the President made in his speech this last week, the picture of a power plant stack with a wet gas scrubber at the beginning of your post is interesting.  You may know that the purpose of the wet gas scrubber is to remove sulfur dioxide, particulates and possibly mercury.  These are some of the pollutants that most adversely affect those with respiratory health issues that your post highlights.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 1, 2013

America has used our know-how to clean up smog, mercury, acid rain, lead and soot.”

The big differences that make CO2 harder to solve than these other pollutants are: 

  • carbon is the magic ingredient in oil that makes it a great transportation fuel, and burning carbon makes CO2.
  • CO2 capture is likely to be so expensive that if implemented, fossil fuel suppliers would be very likely to loose market share to non-fossil competitors, which they will strenuously oppose.  And today’s campaign finance laws are very favorable to big business.
  • CO2 sequations, if widely practiced, may run into the same opposition as nuclear waste disposal (and unlike nuclear waste, CO2 does not automatically become safer over time).  So the free market is unlikely to aggressively pursue this path.
Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 2, 2013


Loved your post. If only we would have made the right choices in regard to Nuclear Power, say in 70’s and 80’s, Nuclear Power would not be so scary today.

President Clinton and John Kerry Killed the Integral fast Reactor (IFR), and before them, Nixon administration Killed the LFTR. Since both eras,  Renewables advocates and the FFs industry have both done more than enough to ensure that Modern meltdown proof, smaller, cheaper nuclear power were never developed.

I have never been opposed to renewables per se, but I just could not see how they were going to save the planet as hyped by renewables enthusiasts. Typically any suggestion that renewables were inadequate was often met with visceral antagonism, sometimes even personal insults.

As I see it, there is no technological impediment to LFTR, IFR, DMSR, PBR all of these 4th generation Nuclear reactor designs would give us Baseload,  dispatchable, melt-down proof, low to no pollution, steady and reliable power. Most of these technologies were invented in the USA, and are now being actively developed in China.

Just imagine if we had stayed with the development of LFTR or other MSRs, or if we had kept on the IFR going. We could have been well on our way to carbon free power and be able to sell that power to the rest of the world too.

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