Expert Voices

Cutting Costs by Cleaning Air (Op-Ed)

Cirrus clouds are made of ice particles and can cover 30% of Earth's atmosphere.
Cirrus clouds are made of ice particles and can cover 30% of Earth's atmosphere. (Image credit: Michael Thompson / NASA)

Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)'s Climate and Clean Air Program, contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

A new discussion paper out earlier this week reaffirms that the Clean Air Act can be used to achieve big reductions in carbon, with big health and environmental benefits, at a relatively low cost.

The findings, from Dallas Burtraw and Matt Woerman at Resources For the Future (RFF), confirm the main conclusion from NRDC's report in December on curbing carbon pollution from power plants.

The new analysis, using a different economic model and a somewhat different approach, is very timely since the president has directed the U.S. Environmental Protecion Agency (EPA) to set flexible carbon pollution standards for power plants under the Clean Air Act.

The key result from Burtraw and Woerman's analysis is that a carbon dioxide emission-rate standard that allows averaging across all electricity generated in a region could reduce electric-sector carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 16 percent — without significantly increasing electricity prices.

The total cost of achieving those emission reductions would be $10 billion, according to RFF, but the benefits from improved public health and reduced climate change damages would be $35 billion, a 3.5-to-1 rate of return.

Those results are quite consistent with the conclusions of NRDC's analysis. We analyzed a specific proposal for how EPA could establish power-plant carbon-pollution standards that tailor pollution limits to the mix of energy sources available in each state. Such an approach would give electric utilities the flexibility to hit their targets in the most cost-effective way. We found that our proposal would reduce emissions by 26 percent, with estimated benefits of $25 billion to $60 billion in 2020. We found that this result could be achieved at a considerably lower cost than anticipated in the RFF report: only about $4 billion. That outcome results from relying heavily on cost-effective energy efficiency programs that RFF had not considered.

While RFF's analysis is extremely valuable, I don't agree with all of their policy recommendations — but that should not detract from the crucial bottom line from their analysis: The Clean Air Act can deliver big reductions in carbon pollution at low cost. Fortunately the president has directed EPA to do just that.

Lashof's most recent Op-Ed was Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Falling, But Is That Enough?. This article was adapted from New Analysis Confirms Opportunity for Big Carbon Cuts from Power Plants at Low Cost on the NRDC blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

Natural Resources Defense Council