EPA's Clean Power Plan Delivers Greater Emission Reductions than Vehicle Standards


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal this week to set the first-ever limits on how much carbon pollution the country’s existing power plants can pump into the atmosphere is a groundbreaking step toward combating climate change before it’s too late to avoid the worst impacts.  The critical feature of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is the total amount of carbon dioxide the standard calls for the power sector to reduce.  We can cut carbon pollution more than the EPA proposes to do with huge health and environmental benefits.

That aside, one matter has been misconstrued in the media and merits a correction: how the carbon pollution reductions from these standards compare to those from EPA’s vehicle standards.  This AP story says that on a cumulative basis, the vehicle emission standards (finalized in August 2012) reduce carbon pollution more than the Clean Power Plan.  The truth is that this comparison is based on a fundamental inconsistency – reductions from the fuel standards are measured over a longer period of time.  The apples-to-apples comparison measuring carbon reductions from the two actions over the same time period tells the opposite story.  From 2020-2030, the operative time period of the Clean Power Plan, carbon pollution reductions from the power sector outnumber those from the vehicles standard by almost 30 percent.  This makes sense in the context of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.    According to EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Sinks 1990-2012, electricity generation accounts for close to 40% of carbon dioxide emissions, while a little more than 30% are attributed to vehicles.


Source: EPA

Of course, both the vehicle emission standards and the Clean Power Plan are historic achievements and both will go a long way toward reducing dangerous carbon pollution.  Still, it is important to set the record straight.

The most appropriate apples-to-apples comparison of the reductions achieved by the two sets of standards is the cumulative emission reduction over a consistent time period, relying on EPA’s analysis of reductions relative to Business-as-Usual in both cases.  This is tabulated below for the period 2020-2030.  The final tally shows that power plant reductions are greater than vehicles reductions – 5.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide reduced from the power sector compared with 4.1 billion tons from vehicles.





Source: EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis: Final Rulemaking for 2017-2025 Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards; and EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Proposed Carbon Pollution Guidelines for Existing Power Plants and Emission Standards for Modified and Reconstructed Power Plants.

Using the correct comparison over the same time period, the power plant standards achieve almost 30 percent greater emission reductions than the vehicles standards.  Beyond 2030, both sectors will need to make deeper reductions than either of these standards require.  Both the vehicles standards and the power plant standards are historic and leading-edge achievements, and are both critical components of our nation’s climate policy portfolio.  But the statement that the vehicles standards reduce more carbon pollution than the power plant standards is erroneous.  The correct comparison presented here affirms that the Clean Power Plan is the most significant action any U.S. President has taken to combat climate change.  With both the vehicles standards and a strong Clean Power Plan, President Obama has established himself as a true climate leader with a solid legacy of taking action to protect future generations from the hazardous impacts of climate change.

Thanks to my colleagues Roland Hwang and Luke Tonachel for contributing to this post.