Using the Clean Air Act to Cap Carbon
The Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org today petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to set national limits for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. The petition seeks to have greenhouse gases designated as “criteria” air pollutants and atmospheric CO2 capped at 350 parts per million (ppm), the level leading scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
“It’s time to use our strongest existing tool for reducing greenhouse gas pollution—the Clean Air Act. The Act’s provisions should cap carbon pollution at no more than 350 parts per million,” said Kassie Siegel, an author of the petition and director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “For four decades, this law has protected the air we breathe—and it’s done that through a proven, successful system of pollution control that saves lives and creates economic benefits vastly exceeding its costs.”
Last week, in advance of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, the Obama administration proposed emissions reduction targets of just 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, far below the cuts of approximately 45 percent necessary to get back to 350 ppm. The current atmospheric CO2 level is approximately 385 ppm.
The administration argues that its hands are tied by the weak cap-and-trade bills passed by the House of Representatives and under consideration by the Senate. Today’s Clean Air Act petition, however, demonstrates that the Obama administration already possesses the legal tools to achieve deep and rapid greenhouse emissions reductions from major polluters consistent with what science demands.
The U.N.'s top climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, endorsed reducing carbon in our atmosphere to no more than 350 ppm. NASA’s top climate scientist James Hansen has long advocated the need to reach 350.
“The science, unfortunately, is all too clear—350 ppm is the most CO2 we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed,’" said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. Around the world people have rallied around that number, in what CNN called 'the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history;' 92 national governments have endorsed it as a target. Now it's time for the nation that invented environmentalism to use its most progressive set of laws in the same effort."
While the Obama administration is moving forward to reduce greenhouse pollution from automobiles and smokestacks under the Clean Air Act, two laudable and critically important steps, the administration to date has failed to implement other important and legally required provisions of the Act.
Today’s petition seeks a national pollution cap for CO2 and other greenhouse pollutants through a central provision of the Clean Air Act requiring EPA to designate “criteria” air pollutants, set national pollution limits for these pollutants to protect the public health and welfare, and then assist the states in carrying out plans to reduce emissions from major sources to attain or maintain the national standards.
To date, EPA has designated six criteria pollutants: particle pollution (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and lead. The petition seeks the addition of seven greenhouse gases to the list, including CO2 with a cap of no more than 350 ppm, as well as designation and caps for methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O); hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); perfluorocarbons (PFCs); sulfur hexafluoride (SF6); and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).
Setting science-based national pollution caps for these greenhouse gases would mark a critical step in the fight against global warming and add more tools to the Clean Air Act programs the Obama administration is beginning to implement. A national pollution cap for greenhouse gases would also activate and coordinate the efforts of all 50 states, all of which currently implement plans for the reduction of the existing criteria air pollutants, and 38 of which are already drafting or implementing climate action plans.
“The Clean Air Act is a bipartisan bill signed by a Republican president. Leading scientists at NASA and around the world say we need to get to 350 ppm. This petition simply asks EPA to do its job as science, the law, and common sense require,” said McKibben.
“Rather than perpetually wait for flawed and inadequate new climate legislation before taking meaningful action, the Obama administration can and must use the existing authorities under the Clean Air Act to set a target of 350 parts per million to protect the climate and our future,” said Siegel.
The climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as legislation currently pending in the Senate, would eliminate EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to designate greenhouse gases as criteria air pollutants and to set a cap on such emissions as requested in today’s petition.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
350.org organized the most widespread day of environmental action in the planet's history on October 24, 2009 when people in 181 countries at more than 5,200 events gathered to call for action on the climate crisis.
Click here to read the petition.
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