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The Road Not Yet Taken

If the justices force the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, they could point America down a new sustainable energy road and become global warming heroes.

Is carbon dioxide an air pollutant or not? This question is at the heart of today’s Supreme Court Case, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which 12 states are suing the EPA for its failure to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in automobiles.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set emissions standards for air pollutants from motor vehicles, yet the EPA claims that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant despite its role in causing global warming. The plaintiffs have marshaled strong arguments in favor of the EPA’s existing authority in this area, but it is not clear that the Court will side with them. Yet if the EPA is forced to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, history may view today’s courtroom drama as a turning point in America’s involvement in meeting the climate change challenge.

Two studies released within the past month, coupled with the midterm election, have thrown our energy choices into stark contrast. The justices today have the first opportunity to emerge from a complicated thicket of climate science, energy, and environmental policy to see, as Robert Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

Since the Industrial Revolution, the United States and the rest of the developed world have been rolling along a fossil fuel intensive energy path without questioning why they were on it or where it would take them. But lately the road has gotten rockier. High gasoline, heating, and electricity prices have focused attention on the economic, environmental, and national security implications of our current energy system. And the increasingly apparent impacts of global warming are forcing us to consider what lies around the bend of our current path.

Two recent European forecasts show that continuing on our current path could have dire consequences. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, released at the end of October by the British government, shows that climate impacts could cost the global economy five to 20 percent of GDP per year. The International Energy Agency released its similar World Energy Outlook 2006 on November 7th predicting a “dirty, insecure, and expensive” energy future if current trends continue.

I took the one less traveled by,

Both of these studies point to a divergent energy path—one that is cleaner, more secure, and more cost-effective. The Stern Review estimated that if the world acts soon, it can reduce the risk of substantial impacts from climate change with policy changes and monetary investments equal to one percent of global GDP per year.

The subsequent changes to energy technology should cause the global economy to grow robustly. The IEA found that increased upfront costs for efficient technology and low or zero-carbon energy sources would be quickly surpassed by reductions in the energy bills of consumers.

A few trailblazers have already begun to travel down this more sustainable path. Sweden uses renewable sources to meet a quarter of its energy needs, topping the 2007 Climate Change Performance Index. California has held its per capita electricity consumption roughly constant at about 7000 kilowatt-hours per person since the mid-1970s, while electricity in the rest of America has continued to grow and is now nearly 5000 kilowatt-hours per person higher than in California.

Sweden and California both achieved results by embracing efficiency and increasing renewables in their energy supply without harming their economies.

Renewable sources currently account for only six percent of the United States’ total energy use. But American Energy, a recent report released by the Worldwatch Institute and the Center for American Progress, shows that renewable energy can play a greater roll in our energy supply. A RAND analysis for the Energy Future Coalition found that renewable sources could provide 25 percent of America’s electricity and liquid fuels by 2025 without added costs to the economy. Some scenarios even predict that the 25×25 vision would be cheaper than continuing with our current energy system.

Energy played a more prominent role in the recent election than ever before. American voters this year showed that they are ready for the nation to change course. Americans understand the crucial influence energy has on their top concerns—national security and economic prosperity. And winning candidates across the country offered positive, innovative visions of a renewable energy future for America.

The onus is now on the new Congress to enact policies that will move us from the well-worn fossil fuel path to the sustainable one in want of wear.

And that has made all the difference.

The longer we delay reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the harder it will become to avoid impacts that cause serious environmental and economic harm. Fifteen years ago the United States and nations around the world adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, pledging to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet emissions are still going up. This week Australian scientists reported that the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions has more than doubled since 2000.

Never before has the impact of our energy choices been so clear. History will not judge kindly those who have kept us on the well-traveled fossil fuel road too long. Depending on their ruling, the Supreme Court Justices could be unexpected global warming heroes by pointing America down a new sustainable energy road.

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