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Dec 032009
 

By Harriet Blake

Two prominent environmental groups have proposed a direct approach to controlling carbon emissions that doesn’t require a new climate law, or even a cap-and-trade agreement.

The strategy: Use the U.S. Clean Air Act.

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to set national limits for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act.

The petition asks that greenhouse gases be classified as “criteria” air pollutants, which would trigger national caps under the law, and that atmospheric CO2, be capped at 350 parts per million (ppm) which is the level that many scientists now believe is required to avert the worst impacts of global warming. Carbon is the most prevalent GHG, and is produced, in large part, by burning fossil fuels. Coal-fired power plants are the single greatest carbon emitter. Transportation and oil-burning manufacturing activities also contribute.

“The science, unfortunately, is all too clear,” says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. “350 ppm is the most CO2 we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed. …Ninety-two national governments have endorsed it as a target. Now it’s time for the nation that invented environmentalism to use its most progressive set of laws in the same effort.”

Most recently, the Obama administration proposed emission reduction targets of just 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This is much less than the cuts of about 45 percent that are necessary to return to 350 ppm.

Today, the current atmospheric CO2 level is about 385 ppm.

The Clean Air Act petition notes that the Obama administration already has the legal tools it needs to greatly reduce greenhouse emissions. The work can proceed with or without a cap-and-trade bills.

But why file the petition now, on the eve of the Copenhagen talks that could solidify new emissions reductions?

“We filed the petition now,” says Kassie Siegel, an author of the petition and director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, “to make the point that Obama already has the tools he needs to agree to deep, rapid, and science-based emissions reductions in Copenhagen, and to then achieve those reductions. His excuses for failing to do so are unfounded.”

In other words, President Obama doesn’t have to beg off strong emissions targets just because Congress has aimed low with the climate bills under consideration. He doesn’t have to tell his counterparts in Copenhagen that all he can offer is what Congress will allow. The Copenhagen Climate Conference, which brings together negotiators and heads of state from around the globe to try to forge an accord on emissions reductions, runs from Dec. 7-18. Obama has announced he will attend early in the conference, and several U.S. cabinet members are participating, including the EPA’s Lisa Jackson, Department of Energy chief Steven Chu and Carol Browner, head of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

The Clean Air Act’s provisions have worked for 40 years, Siegel notes.

“This law has protected the air we breathe – and it’s done that through a proven , successful system of pollution control that saves lives and creates economic benefits vastly exceeding its costs,” she says.

Among others supporting the petition are the UN’s chief climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen. Both agree on the need to reach 350.

“The Clean Air Act is a bipartisan bill signed by a Republican president,” says McKibben. “Leading scientists at NASA and around the world say we need to get to 350 ppm. This petition simply asks EPA to do its job as science, the law and common sense require.”

By filing the petition now, says Seigel, the environmental groups such as hers, are trying to prove that “Obama’s hands are not tied, as he claims, by Congress’s abysmal response to the climate crisis.

Obama promised to lead the way to a science-based solution. Were he to do so as our petition requests, such leadership could still allow real success at the Copenhagen climate talks.”

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