GHG regulations forge ahead despite protests

By Holly Jessen | August 27, 2010
The challenges to greenhouse regulations and the understanding of complex GHG interactions continue to unfold.

EPA denies petitions
In July, the U.S. EPA denied 10 petitions challenging the controversial 2009 endangerment finding regarding greenhouse gases (GHGs), saying climate change is real and threatens human health and environment. The petitions claimed that climate science cannot be trusted. "The endangerment finding is based on years of science from the U.S. and around the world. These petitions—based as they are on selectively edited, out-of-context data and a manufactured controversy—provide no evidence to undermine our determination. Excess greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and welfare," said Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator. These cases are not closed, however, as all the petitioners also filed legal challenges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. If the court rules for the petitioners, the EPA could be prevented from regulating GHG emissions.

Challenge to Calif. law
In California, AB32, the law that requires the state to reduce GHG levels back to 1990 levels by 2020, will go to voters in November. The law has been vigorously opposed by many in the energy sector and 800,000 signed a petition to suspend the law due to concerns about economic impact. "We believe that the aggregate net jobs impact in the near term is likely to be negative, even after recognizing that many of the [California Air Resources Board Scoping Plan] programs phase in over time," said a report from the California Legislative Analyst's Office, a non-partisan fiscal and policy analyzer in the state. Opponents have also raised the issue of the appropriateness of state-specific laws for such energy policy.

Meanwhile, two new reports released this summer demonstrate the complexity of quantifying and comparing GHG emissions. Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined emissions by U.S. military operations to protect oil imports from the Middle East, and Stanford Earth scientists found high-yield agriculture has prevented massive amounts of GHGs from being released.

Indirect military emissions
The UNL report was completed by Adam Liska and Richard Perrin, who estimate that the war in Iraq releases 43.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually. Military protection of supertankers in the Persian Gulf amounts to another 34.4 million metric tons of CO2e annually. When gasoline's impact is evaluated by regulators, the report points out, only direct emissions are counted as part of its environmental impact. Not so for biofuels. Under the 2007 Energy and Independence Act, biofuels are required to meet specific GHG reductions, from 20 to 60 percent under gasoline, including direct and indirect emissions. "Our conservative estimate of emissions from military security alone raises the greenhouse gas intensity of gasoline derived from imported Middle Eastern oil by 8 to 18 percent," Liska said. "In order to have a balanced assessment of the climate change impacts of substituting biofuels for gasoline, a comparison of all direct and indirect emissions from both types of fuel is required."

Yield intensification impact
The other study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that yield improvements have reduced the need to convert land to crops." Every time forest or shrub land is cleared for farming, the carbon that was tied up in the biomass is released and rapidly makes its way into the atmosphere—usually by being burned," said Jennifer Burney, lead author of the paper describing the study. "Yield intensification has lessened the pressure to clear land and reduced emissions by up to 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year." Plus, for every $1 spent on agriculture research and development since 1961, the emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, all GHGs, were reduced by about a quarter of a ton of CO2. "When we look at the costs of the research and development that went into these improvements, we find that funding agricultural research ranks among the cheapest ways to prevent greenhouse gas emissions," said Steven Davis, co-researcher along with David Lobell. Increasing yield alone isn't enough to guarantee lower emissions from land use change, the authors said, adding that it must go along with efforts in conservation and development. It is, however, a big factor. "The striking thing is that all of these climate benefits were not the explicit intention of historical investments in agriculture. This was simply a side benefit of efforts to feed the world," Burney said. "If climate policy intentionally rewarded these kinds of efforts, it could make an even bigger difference. The question going forward is how climate policy might be designed to achieve that."