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For Immediate Release, June 25, 2009

Contact: Kieran Suckling, (520) 275-5960, ksuckling@biologicaldiversity.org

American Clean Energy and Security Act Must Be Substantially Strengthened to Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity today presented an analysis showing that, as written, the American Clean Energy and Security Act cannot achieve its goal of preventing catastrophic runaway global warming. The Center called upon Congress to substantially amend the bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions more deeply and quickly, remove sections that repeal essential protections of the Clean Air Act, and ban construction of new coal-fired power plants instead of allowing it.

The Center’s chief concerns with the bill as it stands include:

• The greenhouse gas reduction target falls far short of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million;

• Essential Clean Air Act protections are repealed;

• Construction of coal-fired power plants will continue;

• Offsets could result in increased greenhouse gas emissions;

• Polar bear and thousands of other species will go extinct.

The Center also released a report entitled No Reason to Wait: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through the Clean Air Act. The report demonstrates how the scientifically grounded Clean Air Act can and should play an essential role in controlling greenhouse gas pollution and averting the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

“The American Clean Energy and Security Act has a less-than 50/50 chance of averting the worst collective crisis in human history,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It recklessly asks us to flip a coin to determine the future of the planet. But it is not too late to bring the bill into line with what scientists say is needed to stop global warming.”

Global warming is the greatest collective threat humanity has ever faced. Atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels have soared well beyond any previous high of the past 800,000 years. The current atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 390 parts per million (ppm) has already exceeded the maximum safe level of 350 ppm [1]. If greenhouse gas levels are not immediately and dramatically reduced, natural tipping points will likely be triggered, causing runaway warming outside of human control. Recent spikes in methane, ocean acidification, and Arctic melting are initial indications that some dangerous positive feedback loops may already have been triggered [2].

The acceleration of Arctic sea-ice melt is of special concern because of its threat to polar bears, walruses, and seals, and because the Arctic has long been identified as a likely global tipping point. Sea ice reflects the sun’s energy back to space, cooling the planet. When the ice is replaced by water — which absorbs the sun’s energy — Arctic warming accelerates rapidly. Additionally, massive methane reservoirs currently locked in the frozen tundra and sea bed will be released in a warmer climate, exacerbating global warming. The net effect will be to switch the Arctic from a planetary cooling to a planetary warming mechanism. If the Arctic’s energy balance is not restored soon, the Greenland ice sheet may be put on an irreversible melting trajectory that would raise global sea levels by approximately 20 feet.

The Center for Biological Diversity agrees with NASA’s James Hansen and other scientists who last year concluded:

“Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects… [I]f the world continues on a business-as-usual path for even another decade without
initiating phase-out of unconstrained coal use, prospects for avoiding a dangerously large, extended overshoot of the 350 ppm level will be dim.” [1]

It agrees, as well, with 20 leading climate scientists who this month concluded:

“In many political circles around the world, the view has taken hold that nations should endeavor both to limit the buildup of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas and a by-product of burning coal, oil and natural gas, to 450 parts per million and to limit the rise of global temperatures to less than 2°Celsius. We and many others are of the view that these objectives are inadequate to sustain the integrity of global climate and to hold the risk of ruinous climatic change to an acceptably low level.” [3]

Any greenhouse gas solutions bill will fail to solve the global warming crisis if it does not: 1) achieve emissions reductions that will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to below 350 ppm; 2) include measures to slow the Arctic melting to avoid irrevocably crossing a climactic tipping point; 3) prohibit the construction of new, and phase out existing, coal-fired power plants; 4) maintain the parallel ability of the Clean Air Act and other laws to reduce greenhouse pollution under scientifically determined standards; and 5) save the polar bear and other wildlife from extinction.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act contains many helpful provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition America to a clean, secure energy future. Unfortunately, as originally introduced, the bill fails all five criteria for solving the global warming crisis. Further, since introduction, the bill has been steadily weakened in an attempt to garner support from industry groups. The bill must be substantially improved if it is to meet its aim of solving the climate crisis.

The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Fall Far Short of Reducing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide to 350 Parts Per Million

The bill’s cap-and-trade programs aim to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 1 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 68 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 [4]. With full implementation of all other provisions, including significant reduction credit for international deforestation efforts, maximum total reductions are estimated at 23 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 77 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 [4].

Thus even the maximum reductions the bill would provide, under the most optimistic assumptions, fall far short of the reductions necessary to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases at even 450 ppm. That would require reductions of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 [5]. But even a 450 target is unacceptable because it produces a 50 percent chance that global temperatures will increase more than 2°C with catastrophic results, and a 30 percent chance of the warming exceeding 3°C [6]. More recent climate science calls for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide from today’s level of 390 ppm to no more than 350 ppm [1]. Reducing greenhouse gas concentrations to 350 ppm would reduce the chance of overshooting a 2°C temperature rise to just 7 percent [11]. The emissions reductions of the American Clean Energy and Security Act are not in the ballpark of what is needed to avoid the looming climate catastrophe.

Essential Clean Air Act Measures Are Repealed; Construction of Coal-fired Power Plants Will Continue

The Clean Air Act works. For four decades, the Act has protected the air we breathe, saved thousands of lives each year, and otherwise improved public health. The three primary provisions that can be brought to bear on greenhouse emissions are sections dealing with mobile sources, stationary sources, and national air-quality standards. The American Clean Energy and Security Act retains the Clean Air Act’s authority to regulate mobile sources, but exempts greenhouse emissions from most other provisions. This is an extremely dangerous strategy because it removes the Clean Air Act as a backstop and source of scientific standards. Climate legislation should complement the Clean Air Act, not override its essential provisions.

Whereas the bill establishes emissions reduction standards through political horse-trading, the Clean Air Act would require the Environmental Protection Agency to scientifically establish national ambient air quality standards at a level sufficient to protect “public health and welfare.” Given advances in climate science, that standard for carbon dioxide would likely be 350 ppm or less. Emission reduction needs would then be rationally identified based on the scientifically determined atmospheric standard. Rather than substitute politics for science, the bill should work in parallel with the Clean Air Act to ensure decision-making is scientifically grounded.

Even though coal-fired power plants are the single most destructive greenhouse gas emitters, the bill overrides the Clean Air Act to allow numerous plants to be built with no additional greenhouse emission reduction requirements for more than a decade [8]. In contrast, the Clean Air Act would require any new coal-fired power plants to be built (if at all) with significant emissions reductions effective upon construction. Thus the American Clean Energy and Security Act, due to political compromises, may actually promote the construction of polluting coal-fired power plants.

Offsets Could Result in Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Depending on the year, 28–65 percent of a capped entity’s emissions allowance could be met through purchase of offsets rather than reduction of emissions. This could result in an increase of actual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rather than a reduction, making it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to meet the 2050 emission target.

Ensuring the integrity of offsets, moreover, has proven very difficult, leading the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conclude that “the use of carbon offsets in a cap-and-trade system can undermine the system’s integrity, given that it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions.” [9] Forty percent of offset projects studied under the world’s largest offset market, the Clean Development Mechanism, were found to be questionable in adding new offset value [10].

Polar Bear and Thousands of Other Species Will Go Extinct

Extinction is among the most serious effects of global warming, and it is absolutely irreversible. If global warming is not soon controlled, up to a third of the Earth’s plants and animals could be committed to extinction by 2050 [12]. Numerous species have already gone extinct due to our current level of warming [13], and many others, including the polar bear, walrus, Arctic seals, Antarctic penguins, American pika, elkhorn coral, staghorn coral, and black abalone, are already on a global warming-induced extinction trajectory. Polar bears are already declining, and Arctic sea-ice extent has shrunk to the lowest levels ever recorded due to current greenhouse pollution levels. To allow greenhouse gas levels to increase further, as the American Clean Energy and Security Act will, is a death sentence for the polar bear and thousands of other species.

The difference between the specific needs of endangered species and the arbitrarily established greenhouse gas reduction targets of the bill are a good example of why we need a greenhouse bill that works with, and builds upon, the scientific standards of existing laws rather than replacing them with politically negotiated targets.

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Endnotes:

[1] Hansen et al. 2008. Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?
[2] Catchpole, D. 2008. Scientists warn of rising Pacific Coast acidity. Associated Press, May 28, 2008; Black, R. 2008. Methane rise points to wetlands. British Broadcasting Service, May 23, 2008. Stroeve, J. et al. 2008. Arctic sea ice extent plummets in 2007. Eos 89:13-20.
[3] Abrahamson, D. et al. 2009. An Open Letter to the President and Members of Congress: Strong Leadership Needed Now on Climate.
[4] World Resources Institute. 2009. Emission Reductions Under the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, May 19, 2009. N.B. ACESA targets are often described in relation to a 2005 baseline. We use 1990 as the baseline to provide a clear comparison with IPCC and international standards.
[5] S. Gupta et al. 2007. Policies, Instruments and Co-operative Arrangements, in Climate Change 2007: Mitigation, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change 776 (2007).
[6] Union of Concerned Scientists. 2007. How to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change: A Target for U.S. Emissions.
[7] Environmental Protection Agency. 1997. The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act: 1970 to 1990.
[8] Performance standards for coal-fired power plants require new plants permitted between January 1, 2009 and January 1, 2020 to achieve a 50 percent reduction in emissions, but only by the earlier of 1) January 1, 2025 or 2) 4 years after successful commercial operation of carbon sequestration of a certain size as determined by EPA. ACESA, proposed CAA § 812(b)(2). This deadline can be further extended based on a showing of technological infeasibility. ACESA, proposed CAA § 812(b)(3).
 [9] U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2008. International Climate Change Programs: Lessons Learned from the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. GAO-09-151.
[10] Schenider, L. 2007. Is the CDM fulfilling its environmental and sustainable development objectives?  An evaluation of the CDM and options for improvement.
[11] Meinshausen, M. 2006. What Does a 2°C Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates, in Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change 270 (2006).
[12] Malcom, Jay R. et al. 2007. Global Warming and Extinctions of Endemic Species from Biodiversity Hotspots. Conservation Biology. 20(2):538-548; Thomas, Chris D. et al. 2004. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature. 427:145-148.
[13] Parmesan, C. 2006. Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Recent Climate Change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37:637–69.


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