Governor Terry McAuliffe has created a working group to recommend concrete steps on how to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from Virginia’s power plants. As the task force undergoes its deliberations, I hope it will consider the tradeoffs between economic costs and environmental benefits.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, noted that implementation of the Clean Power Plan would reduce global temperatures a grand total of 0.023 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. From what I can glean from the Internet — readers, please point out if I have missed something — the Obama administration has not disputed that the magnitude of the change would amount to no more than a small fraction of a degree.
Rather than contest the numbers, the Obama environmental team has made two arguments: (1) that the Clean Power Plan regulating the electric power industry is only one element in a package of initiatives, such as promoting energy efficiency and improving better gas mileage for cars, that will have a much bigger impact, and (2) the United States needs to take the lead in order to persuade other CO2 emitters like India and China to accede to the United Nations framework for attacking man-made global warming.
Lomborg contends that the total U.S. package, of which the Clean Power Plan is only a part, will reduce global temperatures by only 0.057 degrees, and if the whole world follows through with commitments to the U.N. agreement, the forecast rise in global temperatures would moderate by only 0.3 degrees.
That’s the big picture. While one can reasonably argue that Virginia must “do its part” to achieve these benefits, it is also worth asking what difference Virginia’s contribution to that effort will make. In 2014, Virginia consumed 112 million kilowatt hours of electricity, about 3% of the national total. Assuming that Virginia’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan accounts for a comparable 3% of the national figure, the Old Dominion will contribute to a .0007-degree reduction. (Implementation of the administration’s other measures would increase Virginia’s total contribution to about .0017 degrees, but those are not an issue at the state level.)
For purposes of discussion, let’s assume that the Clean Power Plan wins the Supreme Court stamp of approval and moves forward as the law of the land. The plan provides states different paths to achieving its goals. The big decision facing Virginia at that point will be which of four broad approaches to adopt: one of four flavors of a “rate-based” plan or “mass-based” plan. (See here for details.)
All four options would reduce CO2 emissions, although one of the mass-based options would reduce it more than the others. Thus, the debate is over the difference between the two plans. When we ponder the trade-offs between the cost to Virginia rate payers, the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid, and benefits to the global environment, we should recognize that the most consequential decision Virginia can make will lead to a reduction (assuming the climate models are valid) of some fraction of .0007 degrees, with a margin of error of a couple ten thousandths of a degree, in global temperatures by 2100.
I fully concede that these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I’m sure they can be refined. I may have overlooked important considerations. I’m open to information that anyone can provide to help refine them, and I solicit your input. Consider this a starting point for discussion.
I’m not being a global warming “denier” here. I’m accepting the proposition that human-caused climate change is real, that the net impact to the world will be negative, and that the way to deal with the threat is to re-engineer the global energy economy. But I do think it is important to give Virginians an honest accounting of the costs and benefits. Citizens should press the McAuliffe administration either to acknowledge the rough validity of the numbers I have presented or to present their own numbers.