PA Has a Climate Action Plan—Now PA Needs Climate Action

Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf joined the U.S. Climate Alliance and his Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled a new Climate Action Plan. These are welcome and exciting developments, but they also highlight how much work the Commonwealth has to do—especially in the power sector—to cut economy-wide emissions 80 percent by 2050, the goal set by Wolf’s recent Executive Order on climate. 

Pennsylvania’s Climate Change Act

Pennsylvania’s Climate Change Act of 2008 requires the DEP to assess the “potential impact of climate change” on the state’s people, economy and natural resources, and to create a Climate Action Plan that recommends strategies to mitigate the impacts. The DEP must evaluate the costs, benefits, and economic opportunities of mitigation policies, and the plan must be updated every three years.

This year’s Climate Action Plan, the DEP’s fourth since 2009, is the first to detail strategies for adapting to climate change impacts, as well as strategies for cutting pollution. That’s because the impacts of climate change are not just potential in Pennsylvania; they’re occurring, mostly in the form of extreme weather, and Pennsylvanians are paying for it. One striking statistic from the Plan is that since 2006, the state Department of Transportation has spent over $190 million to recover from more and more flood-related disasters.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is currently the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S., and the emission trends aren’t good as we approach mid-century.

According to the Action Plan, in 2015 the Commonwealth’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases were equivalent to 257 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMTCO2e), net of carbon “sinks” like the state forest system. (This figure doesn't include emissions from burning Pennsylvania coal and gas in other states and countries, where most of both are consumed). That’s down from 291 million tons in 2005, largely due to more energy efficiency and the replacement of coal power plants with gas plants. However, if Pennsylvania continues with its current policies, emissions will rise between now and 2050 to about 280 million tons, which is just 4 percent below 2005 levels.

To reach the goal in Wolf’s executive order of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050, Pennsylvania must cut emissions by more than 70 percent. To get to “net zero” emissions, which the IPCC says is necessary to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, emissions must be cut by more than 90 percent. Pennsylvania won’t come close to either goal unless it adopts strong clean energy policies in all sectors of its economy, especially electric power and transportation.

Strategies and Actions

The new Climate Action Plan identifies 19 climate mitigation and adaptation strategies (see pages 17-18), as well as 100 specific actions to implement these strategies. Working with a consultant, the DEP modeled 15 of these mitigation actions and determined that they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 21 percent in 2025 and 36 percent in 2050. The Plan notes that “any combination of the 85 additional actions would likely achieve even more emissions reductions,” and that’s certainly true. But the 15 modeled policies—including cap-and-trade and an expanded Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS)—could achieve greater reductions, if they were designed more aggressively than the DEP modeled them. For instance, the DEP could have modeled a stringent carbon cap in 2050, as well a 30-percent-by-2030 cap. 

With respect to economic cost and benefits, the DEP concluded that “[t]he overall net impacts of the [modeled] strategies on the Pennsylvania economy are positive,” and that implementing the strategies will create tens of thousands of new jobs. The Plan recommends that policymakers focus in the short term on “actions with large GHG and economic benefits and relatively low cost and political barriers.”

What About the Electric Power Sector?

One curiosity about the Climate Action Plan is that it does not look at Pennsylvania’s electricity generation sector as a sector in evaluating emission reduction strategies. Rather, the plan constructs and models an “energy production” sector, which is both broader and narrower than “electricity generation.” It's broader insofar as it includes greenhouse gas emissions from fracking and mining activity, as well as power plants. It is narrower because it doesn't account for all of Pennsylvania's power plant emissions, only those that are traceable to electricity consumed inside Pennsylvania. This is significant because approximately a third of the electricity generated in Pennsylvania is exported to and consumed in other states.

The effect of this choice is that the Climate Action Plan doesn’t reflect all of the emission reductions that would actually occur at Pennsylvania’s power plants if the state increased its renewable goals in the AEPS or joined a cap-and-invest program like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Asked about RGGI at press event where the Action Plan was released, Governor Wolf said that it’s “something we really need to take a serious look at.”  Pennsylvania can’t do that without taking into account the massive volumes of carbon pollution that its power plants emit for exported electricity. Moreover, even if it could, not accounting for that pollution would mean foregoing around a third of the revenue that would be generated if power plants were required to buy allowances for all of their emissions.

What Pennsylvania Can Do Now

Since the Climate Action Plan makes recommendations, rather than policy, it begs the question of what Governor Wolf and General Assembly will now do, especially regarding the state’s power sector—where all eyes are now because of the nuclear debate.

The Plan’s “energy production” strategies include increasing the renewable energy goals in the AEPS, limiting carbon emissions through a cap-and-invest program such as RGGI, and maintaining nuclear generation at current levels. A few state legislators seem interested only in maintaining nuclear generation, even though that by itself is not a clean energy policy, and in fact is bad policy to the degree that the plants being propped up are profitable. Other legislators are happy with the status quo of ever-growing natural gas generation, despite the climate impacts and the consumer risks.

Fortunately, though, some legislators are taking clean energy seriously. In the Senate, Senators Steve Santarsiero, Art Haywood, and Tom Killion have introduced SB 600, a bill to raise the renewable energy targets in the AEPS to 30 percent by 2030. In the House, Representatives Carolyn Comitta and Steve McCarter have introduced a companion bill, HB 1195. And on both side of the aisle legislators seem increasingly aware that cap-and-invest—which puts a price on carbon—is a better long-term solution to any economic issues facing Pennsylvania’s nuclear plants than amending the AEPS to include nuclear power.

In short, the stage is set in Harrisburg for policymakers to take their first step forward on clean energy since 2017. Governor Wolf signaled a commitment to that kind of progress by joining the Climate Alliance. Now Pennsylvanians look to Wolf for leadership.