Voluntary Global Warming Pollution Schemes a Failure; NRDC Report Demonstrates Need for Mandatory CO2 Controls

WASHINGTON (November 1, 2001) - Voluntary pledges by electric power companies to cut heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution have been an abject failure, according to a new report by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The findings demonstrate the need for legally binding CO2 control measures.

Power companies volunteering for a popular federal emissions program claimed more than a billion tons of pollution cuts from 1990 through 2000, even though actual emissions from the electric power sector grew by 25 percent -- a rate three times faster than in the rest of the economy, where CO2 emissions grew just 8 percent during the same period.

"Electric companies asked for the opportunity to reduce their emissions voluntarily. But when they were given that chance, they failed to deliver," said NRDC Senior Scientist Daniel Lashof, lead author of the report.

Available on-line, the new analysis is being released on the same day that the U.S. Senate begins hearings on the Clean Power Act, which would set mandatory power plant CO2 limits for the first time.

NRDC reviewed the Department of Energy's voluntary Climate Challenge program and the emissions reporting system established by section 1605(b) of the 1992 Energy Policy Act. DOE launched the Climate Challenge in 1993 with the goal of reducing electric power industry CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Power plants produce 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions -- more than any other source.

The study found that electric power companies used inflated baselines and other dubious accounting practices to claim large emission "reductions" when in fact they did little or nothing to change emissions trends. Emissions rose at about the same rate that power generation increased.

The sorry performance spotlights the problem with proposals by the Bush administration and some power companies to continue relying solely on voluntary measures to control global warming pollution. Shortly after taking office, President Bush reversed a campaign pledge to establish mandatory limits on power plant CO2 emissions.

Fudge Factors
NRDC found several types of creative accounting in the voluntary reductions claimed by electric power companies. They include:

  • Seventy percent of the pollution "reductions" the utilities claimed were based on the routine operation of nuclear plants. Companies simply credited themselves for avoiding emissions that would have occurred had that power been generated by hypothetical coal-fired plants.

  • Power companies claimed pollution cuts from demand-side management (DSM) programs -- where utilities invest in energy savings, rather than building new plants -- that had been in place long before the reporting program began. Moreover, overall utility investments in these energy saving efforts dropped 50 percent between 1994 and 1999.
  • Forty-three electric companies reported reductions from forestry projects that use trees to capture and store CO2 after it is released to the atmosphere. But the average savings reported each year equaled just two days' worth of CO2 emissions from a 500-megawatt coal fired power plant.

The NRDC report notes that in contrast to voluntary efforts to address CO2, a mandatory, market-based program to control sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions has produced dramatic pollution cuts at a fraction of its projected cost. The SO2 rules set legally binding pollution limits, but allow companies to buy and sell emission credits that reward top performers while providing cheaper ways for companies to achieve compliance.

The Clean Power Solution
The lesson from voluntary efforts is that enforceable emissions requirements are needed to make real progress in reducing global warming pollution. Without legal targets, the report concludes that electricity producers simply will not make the investments required to change pollution trends.

The Clean Power Act (S. 556), introduced in the Senate by Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) along with 15 cosponsors from both parties would establish a legal target for emissions. Often described as the "four-pollutant" bill, the legislation would cut carbon dioxide emissions roughly 25 percent, reducing them to 1990 levels. It also would cut nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions -- sources of smog, lung-clogging particulates and acid rain -- 75 percent, and slash power-plant mercury output 90 percent.

At the same time, the Clean Power Act attacks pollution from the demand side by requiring robust energy efficiency programs and providing new incentives for wind power, solar power and other renewable energy sources -- initiatives that would cut electric bills for businesses and consumers alike. A recent analysis by the Energy Information Administration concluded that the bill would save $16 billion in net electricity costs in 2010 compared with maintaining business-as-usual.

Companion legislation, the Clean Smokestacks Act (H.R. 1256), is sponsored in the House by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and 115 other members.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Reported "Reductions," Rising Emissions