Will Capping Carbon Clean the Air?
Delaware Senator Tom Carper joins Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell in criticizing the Bush administration’s so-called “clear skies” plan. (Photo: Clean Air Watch)
Lawmakers are at work on a bill that could limit the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming. But some ask what about other air pollution – the kind that sickens and kills people by the thousands? As Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports, an effort to make the climate bill clean the air is running into opposition - from some environmental groups.
CURWOOD: Beep beep! While the car makers inch towards improving mileage, on Capitol Hill the Senate is at work on what could become the first federal cap on emissions of the main global warming gas carbon dioxide. But some clean air advocates ask why other air pollutants—ones that kill thousands each year—are being left out. Now there’s an effort to make the global warming bill clamp down on those pollutants as well.
As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, this has created a wedge between those who simply want to push through a measure on climate change right now, and those who want to seize the opportunity to more broadly clean up the air.
YOUNG: Delaware Democratic Senator Tom Carper says it’s high time Congress set its sights on climate change and a new cap on carbon dioxide. But he wonders if his fellow lawmakers are losing sight of the threats from old-fashioned air pollution. Carbon threatens the future climate but Carper says other pollutants kill people today.
CARPER: I don’t know how many died last year in this country from exposure to CO2. I know that in this country this year about 25,000 will die from fine particulate pollution—25,000. I don’t know how many babies are going to be born this year with possibility of brain damage from carbon dioxide but I know that this year, over 600,000 babies will be born who are at risk of neurological damage from exposure from the womb from moms who have eaten fish with mercury in them.
YOUNG: Carper’s a long-time member of the Senate environment committee. For years he’s pushed to get electric utilities to reduce emissions of toxic mercury, soot that causes lung and heart disease, the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain, and smog forming nitrogen oxides. Carper argues that if a climate change bill would make power plants cut carbon, it should also aim to reduce those other pollutants.
CARPER: I think for us to walk away from those very real threats to human health and life at a time when we could actually do it all at once and do it well, is a mistake.
YOUNG: Here’s Carper’s concern: reducing CO2 would mean power companies will have to make big, costly, long-term investments. That could mean those companies would be unlikely to agree to additional costly changes later to address other air pollutants. The American Lung Association’s Paul Billings agrees and says tackling all the pollutants in one bill would be best.
BILLINGS: Industry fights very hard against an additional set of reductions. They claim that there was a deal, or we’re asking for a second bite at the apple or additional reductions that aren’t fair. And so, we want to give them a clear set of rules to comply with so we don’t have to have that argument and that fight later on down the line.
YOUNG: So far that line of reasoning isn’t getting very far. The climate change bill is currently in the Senate’s environment committee. One of the lead sponsors is Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman. He’s partnered with Carper on previous efforts to address air pollution. But on this bill, Lieberman says he wants to keep the focus on climate change and rounding up the votes.
LIEBERMAN: This is a greenhouse gas reduction bill. That’s the main goal and it’s a critical goal. And the question is whether if we try to add too much to it including very laudable goals we will endanger the accomplishment of the main goal, which is to reduce greenhouse gas and global warming.
YOUNG: Lieberman had just heard testimony from global warming expert David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Hawkins says aggressively reducing greenhouse gases will mean greater efficiency and cleaner, renewable energy, and that will help reduce other pollutants as well.
HAWKINS: Every kilowatt-hour we don’t produce from fossil fuels is going to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury, as well as carbon dioxide. So we will get substantial reductions of those conventional pollutants from this bill.
YOUNG: However, the Lung Association and two other public health groups cast doubt on the benefits Hawkins describes. They say no air quality improvements are likely for decades and even then there’s no guarantee the pollutants would be cut. Meanwhile, health studies show an urgent need to reduce smog and soot soon to comply with the Clean Air Act and prevent thousands of illnesses and premature deaths.
The Lung Association wrote a letter outlining those concerns to senators on the environment committee. Frank O’Donnell with the group Clean Air Watch says the letter drew sharp criticism from some environmental groups.
O’DONNELL: Well, it is divisive within the environmental community. Other environmental groups did not want to sign that letter because I think they were concerned that it might slow down momentum for this bill. That raises the question: is it a race to do something, or is it a race to do something right?
YOUNG: The issue may come to the forefront when the climate bill faces a vote next month in the environment committee—and Senator Carper’s vote could be crucial. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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