In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first ever national standards to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. Since the implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the EPA has been tasked with issuing regulations to regulate damaging pollutants released into the air. In 1990, there were three major industries that emitted two-thirds of mercury and other toxic emissions: medical waste incinerators, municipal waste combustors, and power plants.
Mercury is extremely toxic and linked to neurological and developmental problems, and even death. When it is emitted into the air, it gets trapped into precipitation and returns into the water supply. Once it ends up in lakes and streams, it turns into a more toxic organic form that permeates the food chain by being absorbed in the tissue and muscles of fish — and all that eat them. Pregnant women and children are most susceptible to the dangers of mercury, which can lead to nervous system damage, respiratory illnesses and birth defects.
Having been subject to regulations for a number of years, medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors had reduced their mercury emissions by 98 percent and 96 percent respectively by 2005. At the time of the new regulations in 2011, power plants were the source of 50 percent of air-borne mercury emissions, 75 percent of acid gases and nearly 60 percent of toxic metals. Many of these plants are located near major water supplies.
A coalition of state and industry representatives sued the EPA, claiming that they did not have the authority to issue the regulations and that they failed to consider the costs of implementing the new standards. The economies of the states that fought the rules were heavily dependent on the coal and energy industry. The coalition said being forced to comply with the regulations would disrupt the power supply as many of the older plants would have to shut down and there would be a risk of losing more than a half-million jobs.
On Tuesday, an appeals court upheld the regulations.
The court rejected the industry’s argument that the EPA didn’t have authority, saying that Congress had relegated the authority to the EPA to determine which types of things would be deemed a hazard to public health and act accordingly. Furthermore, they were convinced that the EPA had acted appropriately based on the ample evidence of the health risks of mercury. As for the costs, the court said the EPA had acted properly by making the decision based on health risks and not compliance costs and that the agency had shown that the benefits outweighed the costs.
The standards will prevent about “90 percent of the mercury in coal burned in power plants being emitted to the air; reduce 88 percent of acid gas emissions from power plants; and reduce 41 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants.” The nation’s more than 600 coal and oil-fire power plants will have until April 2015 to comply, and the law allows for states to grant an additional year for technology installation. Thus far the coal industry has invested $130 billion, and anticipates spending an additional $100 billion over the next decade on “clean coal technology.” An industry coalition has said that many power plants have already been retired due to the costs and expects additional ones to go offline by the deadline, which they say risks disruption to the energy supply of the nation.
The EPA called the ruling a “a victory for public health and the environment” and notes that in EPA’s 40 year history, the Clean Air Act has not impacted power companies’ ability to keep the lights on in communities across the United States.
And they can do so without polluting the air and water.
What’s one way to help take down the oil industry? Stop investing in it! With a $125 million endowment, Pitzer College becomes the largest, most prominent college to commit to yanking its money from fossil fuel investments. Initiated by a group of concerned students, the campaign brought together students, staff and faculty to convince the Pitzer’s trustees to change its investment strategies.
Though students described Pitzer’s trustees as “resistant” to the idea of divestment at first, the board soon saw the value in the decision and agreed to make greater changes than the action group even thought would be realistic going into the campaign.
“In order to align our actions with our values, it made sense not to be seeking to profit from fossil-fuel exploration, extraction, and sale,” said Donald Gould, one of the school’s trustees. He added that he didn’t believe that Pitzer would lose out on too much money by investing the money elsewhere.
Currently, $5.4 million of Pitzer’s endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry. The college plans to sell all but one million of that amount before 2015, with the remaining million to be eradicated in the months to follow.
Equally as impressively, the school is also recommitting itself to improve its own environmental efforts. In an effort to prove that environmentalism goes well beyond how you invest, the Pitzer College community set a goal to reduce its own carbon footprint by 25 percent within the next year and a half.
Laura Skandera Trombley, President of Pitzer College, called the decisions the “logical next step” for her college. “We are an institution that is socially progressive and we have been since our founding,” she said. “We have also been one that is dedicated to sustainability.”
Indeed, Pitzer, one of the first schools in the country to offer an Environmental Studies major, has already established a reputation as an eco-conscious school. Named the “Greenest Campus” in America, Pitzer has constructed dorms meeting the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest standards, instituted farm-to-fork policies in its dining hall, and slashed its water usage in half in the past decade alone thanks to drought-tolerant landscaping.
“This innovative plan is an investment in our shared future, in the young adults who arrive on our campus each fall and the world they will inherit,” said President Trombley. She challenged other higher learning institutions to divest, as well. “Come join the party! It’s so much fun to do the right thing.”
Pitzer joins ten other colleges in committing to divesting from fossil fuels:
- Hampshire College
- San Francisco State University
- Green Mountain College
- Prescott College
- Unity College
- Sterling College
- College of the Atlantic
- Naropa University
- Peralta Community College
- Foothill-De Anza Community College
Of the eleven universities saying goodbye to oil industry investments, however, Pitzer College by far has the largest endowment, hopefully inspiring fellow prominent institutions to go down the same path. Although dozens of other schools have attempted similar campaigns, their boards of trustees generally block these changes for financial reasons.
Just last year, Pitzer College’s own neighbor Pomona College declined to divest because they feared losing hundreds of millions in the long term.
The overall message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s newest report is simple: a rapid shift to renewable energy is needed to avert catastrophic global warming. The science behind that message, however, is less simple.
In an attempt to make the message more clear, the IPCC’s report — produced by 1250 international experts and approved by every major government in the world — uses a number of charts to get its point across. Though the charts themselves are very complex, they provide a way to visualize increases in human-caused greenhouse gases, where those gases come from, and what they could do to our climate.
Here are three of the most sobering charts from that report, and what they tell us about the state of our warming world.
Current efforts to reduce greenhouse gases have not been enough.
This chart shows the total amount of human-caused greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere every year since 1970, both from burning fossil fuels and from other industrial processes.
The visualization makes clear that current efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by switching the cleaner technologies and renewable energy have not been enough, as global greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing by at least 1.3 percent every year since 1970. From 2000 to 2010, those emissions were even greater, increasing by 2.2 percent annually.
The report cites high confidence that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and other industrial processes contributed about 78 percent of total greenhouse gas emission increases from 1970 to 2010, and a similar percentage contribution for the more intense increases from 2000 to 2010.
Energy supply is not the only thing driving emission increases.
The circular graph above shows the percentages that different economic sectors contribute directly to total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, while the inner circle shows how much those sectors indirectly contribute emissions through electricity and heat production. The information is from 2010, the most recent year that data is available.
While the graph shows that energy supply contributed the most to man-made global warming (responsible for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions), it also makes clear that other industries are also to blame. Agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) is responsible for 24 percent of emissions. Industry, seemingly a description for general business production of goods, was responsible for 21 percent, and buildings responsible for 6 percent.
But even though industry and buildings are seemingly smaller emitters, they become larger through their indirect emissions — i.e., their use of the energy sector itself.
Big changes will be needed to avoid disaster scenarios.
On its face, this graphic looks like it does little to simplify the climate conversation. But on closer look, it shows just how much carbon we can emit in order to avoid a scenario where the world warms by more than 2°C, or 3.6°F, by the year 2100.
Each of the colored strips on this graph is a different emissions “scenario” that the IPCC has tested, where more emissions equal more warming. The little blue strip — representing a scenario where emissions concentrations stay between 430 and 480 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2100 — is the one we need to strive for, the IPCC says, if we are to absolutely avoid the 3.6°F warming scenario.
As the IPCC’s first report noted, continued inaction and more carbon emissions would lead to 9°F warming (or higher) for most of the U.S. and Northern Hemisphere landmass, resulting in faster sea level rise, more extreme weather, and collapse of the permafrost sink.
More about what the IPCC’s latest report says can be found here.