An ‘unequivocal’ need to limit power plants’ carbon emissions

“Unequivocal” is a word rarely used by scientists. So when the best climate scientists in the world use it not once but twice, you know they’re serious, and you know we have a problem that needs action.

Just a couple weeks ago, the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said for the second time that the evidence that the planet is heating up is unequivocal, after they did so first back in 2007. They have also once again charged, tried and convicted the main culprit: carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels.


Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that conviction. They also reaffirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to require reductions of dangerous heat-trapping emissions, just as it does for smog, mercury and other harmful pollution.

The impacts of climate change are already evident. The last three decades have been the hottest since the Industrial Revolution. Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting. Sea levels are climbing, with more to come in the next decades. Extreme rainstorms and wildfires are increasing in the United States. Warmer temperatures raise the risk of bad air days and, consequently, more cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, driving fisheries north and threatening environmentally and economically critical species, such as cod, oysters and lobster.

President Obama recognizes these threats to the health and wealth of America. In response, he has crafted a climate action plan that will reduce carbon pollution and respond to the impacts of climate change already underway. An important first step in that plan is the EPA’s proposed rules for new power plants.

The EPA is proposing that new power plants that generate electricity by burning natural gas or coal have to meet standards that limit the amount of carbon pollution they generate.

To set these standards, the EPA looked at the state of energy technology today, and what can be developed in the near future. It did not ask natural gas companies to make huge technological leaps, just that future natural gas plants should be as clean burning as today’s most efficient facilities.

Future coal plants will have to meet a similar pollution standard, which they can achieve by capturing a portion of carbon dioxide released by burning coal and storing it.

Coal-burning companies already were feeling the pressure to innovate from low-cost domestic natural gas and increasingly inexpensive wind, solar and other renewable sources.

These rules give coal companies more flexibility to deploy carbon capture and sequestration technologies, while giving them the push they need to move into the future.

These rules are reasonable. They are flexible. And they are feasible.

For power producers and coal mining companies that reject these standards, they have no reason to complain. When Congress offered a solution to pass a climate and energy bill that would provide billions of dollars to help power companies develop advanced carbon capture technologies, they rejected the legislation. I should know — it was my bill with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Now, natural gas and renewables are expanding their shares of the electricity market. Rather than work with the government to develop carbon capture technologies, coal is now struggling to compete with these cleaner sources of electricity.

U.S. heat-trapping emissions are already falling. These standards will ensure that trend continues. Like past environmental and safety standards, they will also push industry to innovate. And innovation is America’s economic lifeblood. The entrepreneurial spirit is guiding the clean-energy revolution underway in our country. Jobs powered by the sun, the wind and the heat and gas of the earth are growing. There’s every reason for coal to join in the creative fray. If it doesn’t, it will be left behind.

The science of climate change is unequivocal. But Republican opposition to action has caused us to equivocate as a country is in our response to the challenge. These new rules on power plants, when combined with our emission standards for cars and trucks, means that we are no longer equivocating — we are acting. We are acting to end the limitless dumping of heat-trapping pollution into our atmosphere. We are acting to provide future generations with a cleaner, safer environment by generating better technologies today.

We are acting unequivocally to live up to our moral duty to address climate change.

Markey is the junior senator from Massachusetts, taking his seat this year. He serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation; Foreign Relations; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees. From 1976 to 2013, he represented Massachusetts’s 5th Congressional District in the House.