We Can Cut Carbon Emissions With No Net Cost to Economy

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The Obama administration released its Third U.S. National Climate Assessment May 6, the result of a three-year analysis by more than 300 climate scientists confirming that climate change is already affecting Americans in every region, as well as vital sectors of the economy. As part of the solution, the administration intends to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants starting this summer.

The forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency standards, which are under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget and set to be released in early June, would set CO2 emissions thresholds for existing power plants.

Many have expressed concern that any Clean Air Act limits on plant emissions would hurt the economy, but a report last month by the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy argues that the power sector could reduce carbon emissions by 26% through simple energy efficiency upgrades at no net cost to the economy.

The council report highlights four common energy efficiency policies the EPA could use: setting a state energy savings target of 1.5% per year, implementing updated national model building codes, building economically attractive combined heat and power facilities and adopting standards for certain appliances.

"The good news is that the energy efficiency technologies included in the plan have already been tested and are ready to be deployed," the council says in a press release. "The vast majority of states already take advantage of some end-use energy efficiency programs and policies, and all states have vast untapped reserves of this resource."

The report also asserts that these relatively minor adjustments in energy efficiency would save 600 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions -- or more than 925 million MWh of electricity -- by 2030. It would accomplish this by cutting national electricity demand by a quarter and avoiding the need to build 494 more power plants. This in turn would increase the national gross domestic product by $17.2 billion and create 611,000 jobs inside the U.S.

"If [the EPA] is looking for a low-cost way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, it would be a real mistake to leave energy efficiency out of the equation," says Sarah Hayes, senior manager for National Policy at the council. "What the EPA is interested in is reducing emissions, and this is the cheapest way to do it."

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Hayes stresses that the options the council outlines in its report are very modest and the U.S. already has the technology and infrastructure in place to apply them on a wide scale with relative ease -- which means there is potential to cut even more emissions should the EPA decide to take advantage of energy efficiency's full potential.

The report expands on its earlier research, which found that economy-wide improvements in energy efficiency could have halved reduction in current U.S. energy use if the pro-efficiency policy trends of the 1960s and early 1970s had continued. In fact, estimates show that improvements in energy efficiency and the structural changes in the economy have helped supply more energy over the past several decades than reserves in fossil fuel-based energy sources including coal, oil and natural gas.

The council is not the first organization to propose energy efficiency as low-hanging fruit with great rewards.

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