AAAS Symposium Highlights Steps to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions

A range of policy solutions is necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions generated by the energy and transportation sectors, speakers at a 6 May symposium on energy and the economy said.

From left, ben longstreth, kathleen barrón, michael burger, and austin brown discuss carbon reduction steps. (aaas andrea korte)

The symposium, organized by the Energy/Climate and Biofuels Affinity Groups of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, was intended to deepen understanding of the economic and policy challenges facing the energy and transportation sectors in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Attendees of the symposium entitled “So You Want a Low Carbon Future? Here’s What You Need to Know About Our Energy Economy!” were given a crash course on the market structures of the electricity and transportation industries before exploring a mix of current and future policy solutions.

For one, tax incentives that encourage the replacement of fossil fuel-powered plants with low-carbon renewable energy to reduce emission levels are a “great cause for optimism,” said Ben Longstreth, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Air Program.

Renewable energy tax credit programs have helped spur the growth of the alternative energy industry and lowered costs for the industry and consumers alike, said Longstreth. The incentives have driven down the price of wind- and solar-generated energy, reducing the cost of wind energy 61 percent and utility-scale solar 82 percent over the last six years, he added.

Still, tax credits apply only to new renewable projects, not legacy electric production facilities, not even carbon-neutral ones. For some advocates, this represents a flaw in the tax credit program.

“The problem is that only some of the resources in the markets are getting those credits,” said Kathleen Barrón, senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs and wholesale market policy at Exelon Corp., a leading nuclear operator.

Existing nuclear power plants, which produce up to 20 percent of the United States’ electricity and more than two-thirds of its carbon-free electricity, and existing hydropower facilities are ineligible for such credits and this puts such electric power producers at a competitive disadvantage when competing against new renewable providers despite the significant contributions existing nuclear and hydropower facilities make toward emission reduction goals, Barrón said.

The Obama administration’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from electric power plants, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, would permit states to use a cap-and-trade model to put a price on carbon and allow other sources of carbon-free electricity to compete, she said. The centerpiece of the plan is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that calls on states to draw up a plan by 2018 to reduce carbon emissions from electric sectors by specific levels. The Supreme Court placed a temporary hold on the EPA rule in early February as part of a legal challenge to the regulation being waged by 27 states.

Barrón prefers that a carbon tax be put in place, but conceded there is no chance that is likely to happen anytime soon. She said a carbon tax would be a very efficient way to ensure existing clean energy sources continue to operate.

Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, was similarly pessimistic about the implementation of a nationwide cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax. Instead, he urged the administration to use its executive authority to move forward with the two initiatives by invoking Section 115 of the Clean Air Act.

Under Section 115, the EPA administrator is permitted to notify the governor of a state from which pollutants originate and call for a plan to prevent or eliminate the pollution once the EPA receives notice that the pollution can reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health in a foreign country, Burger said. The administrator can only require state action if the foreign country facing public health dangers due to U.S. generated pollution offers U.S. authorities reciprocal rights to require that country to address pollution it is generating that endangers public health.

Although such an approach has never before been used, Burger said it legally can be used and should be pursued.

“What EPA can accomplish under Section 115 is essentially the enactment of a nationwide, cross-sectorial, economy-wide cap-and-trade program or some other market-based mechanism to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reduction,” Burger said.

EPA has already made the endangerment finding, he said. As for reciprocity, Burger said the Paris climate change agreement that the United States signed in December 2015 constitutes a mutual commitment.

Under Section 115, EPA could use the national goal set forth by the United States in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to set emissions limits.

While the United States is on track to meet the goals put forth in Copenhagen in 2009, more action – such as the addition of regulatory steps by the EPA – is necessary to achieve the goals set by the Paris accord, Burger said.

“We’re going to need to achieve a much, much greater degree of reductions than is currently in the pipeline,” Burger said.

Steps for reducing emissions generated by transportation including automobiles, trucks and airplanes prove to be similarly complex, with “thousands of individual actors making individual decisions,” said Austin Brown, a senior policy analyst in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy and former AAAS fellow.

In particular, transportation networks are overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels. In 2014, for example, U.S. transportation systems used 36% domestic oil for fuel, 37% imported oil, and 19% other petroleum fuels, with 3% from natural gas and 5% from biomass, Brown said, citing Department of Energy data.

“When you’re completely dependent on one globally traded commodity – that is, crude oil and petroleum products, it really gives you very significant economic and security vulnerabilities,” Brown said.

That dependency on petroleum products to power transportation is conversely driving several key policy strategies for the sector: electrification and efficiency.

Policymakers also can take smaller steps to achieve goals, Brown said, citing research and development into extending the life of vehicle batteries, expanding public charging infrastructure for electric cars, and implementing the Renewable Fuel Standards, which require that fuel sold in the United States contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels.


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