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NRDC Explains: The New Federal Plan To Cut Carbon Pollution

How cleaning up U.S. power plants will improve your family's health and the economy

On June 2, 2014, President Obama's administration announced the first national standards for reducing carbon pollution from power plants, in an attempt to reduce the harmful impacts of climate change on our homes and health. Scheduled to take effect starting in 2017, the standards will represent one of the most important steps that the United States has taken to slow climate change. And they will save billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

What is carbon pollution and why is it bad?

Carbon dioxide, a gas that traps heat in the earth's atmosphere, is released by fossil fuels when they are burned to produce heat and energy. Due to the vast amounts of coal that they consume, electric power plants are the country's No. 1 source of carbon pollution.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Unlike every other form of air pollution from power plants—including arsenic, mercury, and soot—carbon dioxide has never been regulated by the U.S. government. That's a big loophole. As a result, vast amounts of carbon pollution have been spewing into the air for more than a century, warming our planet, messing with its natural systems, and damaging human health.

Everyone in the United States—and around the world—will feel the impacts of carbon pollution in their daily lives. As our oceans and atmosphere warm, weather and growing patterns will shift, while food shortages and infectious diseases spread. But this isn't just a problem for future generations. As a recent national report made very clear, we are already suffering from climate change across the country, in the form of more frequent asthma attacks, increased heat waves, stronger storms, higher food bills, deadly wildfires, and widespread drought. As NRDC senior health scientist Kim Knowlton puts it: "Climate change is happening to us."

What are the carbon pollution standards?

The standards announced by the Environmental Protection Agency in June 2014 will seek to reduce the amount of carbon pollution produced by U.S. power plants by up to 30 percent (relative to 2005 levels) by 2030, which is the equivalent of taking about 150 million cars off the road. (That’s two-thirds of all passenger vehicles currently operating in the United States.) The standards will help ensure that a much greater share of the nation's future power needs can be obtained from wind, solar, and energy efficiency measures, which will reduce the need to burn fossil fuels for electricity.

Instead of requiring every power plant to meet the same limit all at once, the standards are designed to be flexible and give the industry a chance to adapt (something most utilities are already doing on their own). You don't have to worry, in other words, that there won't be enough electricity to power your home or business, despite the scare tactics from naysayers. Monthly electric bills are projected to actually decrease once the standards are implemented, as a result of state-adopted energy efficiency measures. An economic analysis commissioned by NRDC estimates that the standards could save an average of $103 a year per household.

How will the limits be achieved?

Each state will have its own target, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on how much carbon pollution it currently generates. States that produce and burn a lot of coal right now won't have to reach the same targets at first, in order to make the transition easier for them. And each state will get to decide on a mix of options that will work best for it.

Why allow states so much flexibility? Because it works. This strategy has been used to reduce other forms of air pollution under the Clear Air Act, including acid rain, mercury, and smog.

How can power plants meet the standards?

It could be as simple as installing a more efficient boiler or burning a cleaner mix of fuels, instead of just coal. Some U.S. power plants are also developing technology that would capture and store the CO2 from their smokestacks. Multiple power plants could band together to bring down their average emissions by burning coal less often, ramping up generation from renewable sources like wind and solar instead. Utilities could earn "credits" for adding wind and solar capacity, then trade those credits to companies that are taking longer to make the switch. (California and a coalition of nine Northeastern states already have cap-and-trade programs in place.) And state programs that encourage their residents to use less electricity, by making their homes and businesses more efficient, could offer another cheap and easy solution.

How will the standards make Americans healthier?

Carbon pollution is already harming human health by warming the atmosphere and oceans. Asthma attacks are one of the most widespread health concerns, because warmer air leads to an increase in ground-level ozone (a key component in smog) and other forms of particulate matter that are bad for your heart and lungs. Heat and drought also mean more wildfires, and the smoke from fires can easily spread across several states, increasing air pollution levels and leading to more respiratory and heart disease. Hotter temperatures are also stressful on our bodies; heat waves kill more Americans on average than any other type of natural disaster, and the death toll is rising due to climate change. Flooding, hurricanes, and other forms of extreme weather are also taking a tremendous toll on health (not to mention the U.S. economy).

By making our air cleaner, the carbon pollution standards would yield a public health benefit of up to $93 billion when fully implemented in 2030, the EPA says, preventing up to 150,000 asthma attacks, 180,000 missed school days, and 6,600 premature deaths every year. For every $1 invested, the agency says, Americans would reap $7 in health benefits.

What will the carbon standards mean for American business?

Lots of utilities and business leaders are already on board with these standards; they know carbon pollution is harmful to human health and the environment, and they want government action that helps make the transition economical and fair for everyone. Implementing the standards is projected to cost $9 billion a year at the most, the EPA says, whereas the value of avoiding more severe climate change and health impacts and loss of life is estimated to reach up to $93 billion a year, far exceeding the costs. An NRDC-commissioned analysis shows that investments in energy efficiency can boost the U.S. economy while creating 274,000 jobs for electricians, carpenters, truck divers, and other tradesmen.

What gives EPA the legal authority to enact these standards?

The new rules are being developed under the Clean Air Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1970. It has since been used to clean up smog and mercury pollution and reduce acid rain across the country. (You might find it hard to believe if you were born after 1970, but U.S. cities once looked like this, even at noon. Shifting industrial patterns contributed to change, but the Clean Air Act also helped make it easier for us all to breathe.)

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that carbon pollution is also covered by the Clean Air Act (and federal courts have since affirmed that decision in subsequent cases). That ruling required the EPA to determine if CO2 emissions threaten public health and welfare. The answer was an obvious yes, for both living Americans and future generations. The EPA administrator considered an enormous volume of evidence and issued a finding to that effect in December 2009, and since then the agency has worked through a long process designed to get public, state, and industry input and develop standards to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

What role did NRDC play in developing the pollution standards?

The clean air experts in NRDC's Climate Center (meet some of them here) unveiled a plan for reducing carbon pollution from power plants in late 2012. The plan has been widely cited as a blueprint that could help government officials develop the carbon pollution standards required under the Clean Air Act. The standards announced on June 2, 2014, aren't exactly the same as what NRDC first proposed; the EPA worked with state environmental agencies and took into account more than three million public comments when developing the final product. But there are a lot of similarities, and NRDC supports the agency's efforts to implement the standards, though it is pushing for them to be somewhat tougher than the original EPA proposal.

Why are we bothering with this if China, India, and other countries are going to keep on polluting?

For well over a century, the United States spewed more carbon pollution into the air than any other country, and it is still No. 2 after China. World leaders have said they want to see that the United States is serious about cutting CO2, and then they expect their countries to follow our lead, using many of the same techniques and technologies pioneered here.

What are the next steps?

Another public comment period will be open through September 2014. EPA officials will take those comments into account and finalize the standards by June 2015. Then states will have until June 30, 2016, to submit their plans for meeting the pollution limits. The EPA will spend the rest of 2016 reviewing and approving those state plans. Power plants will probably have several years, likely until 2020, to implement the standards. But many states and utilities are already taking action to reduce carbon pollution and could be in compliance even sooner.

What can I do to support the new standards and help improve my family's health and America's future?

You can urge the EPA to adopt and implement the standards by sending the agency a letter. More than 3 million people wrote to support carbon standards during previous comment periods, but the more people who speak up, the more backing the administration has to protect our country from the threat of carbon pollution. There will also be events all over the country to show support for the standards and urge local, state, and industry leaders to pledge their backing, too. Learn about more ways to get involved and support the standards here.

Take Action Now!

The Environmental Protection Agency is working to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Tell the EPA you support its efforts to enact the first-ever limits on carbon pollution.

Take Action Now

Learn More

NRDC President Frances Beinecke's Blog: EPA Announces New Limits on Carbon Pollution that Will Protect Health and Tackle Climate Change

White House Video: President Obama on Reducing Carbon Pollution from Power Plants

NRDC Report: New Carbon Pollution Standards Can Save American Households $13 Billion on Electric Bills, Create 274,000 Jobs

NRDC Issue Brief: Cleaner and Cheaper: Using the Clean Air Act to Sharply Reduce Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants

NRDC Report: Climate and Your Health: Addressing the Most Serious Health Effects of Climate Change

OnEarth Magazine: A Clear Path to Cutting Carbon Pollution

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