The Emissions Debate Begins

Faculty comment as President Obama puts greenhouse gases at the top of national agenda

On a topic as controversial as regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, it's not surprising that opinions were hitting the media even before President Obama officially announced the proposed changes today. 

But if you wanted to go beyond the political hyperbole and know what was actually in the regulations, Duke professors were on hand to help.

Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, went on BBC News to explain the measure and why it was "a significant step" that correctly focuses on cleaning up the low-hanging fruit of greenhouse gases -- emissions from power plants. He further talked about how the flexibility given states to implement the regulations may reduce some of the political opposition.

Profeta also spoke to the Christian Science Monitor, which called the plan "Obamacare for Carbon emissions." Profeta told the Monitor the regulations should encourage the development of new clean air technologies that will improve the delivery of energy to Americans while also creating a cleaner world.  "There's an opportunity to develop a lot of win-wins where we will introduce policies that both help us meet goal of delivering diverse, reliable power to citizens, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gases from generation of power," Profeta said.

In an interview with Fronteras, Profeta said both sides of the debate have to accept the fact there is a need to both use fossil fuels and address the environmental consequences.

"It's very difficult to perceive a future where we are not using fossil fuels for energy for decades into the future," said Profeta.  "It's also difficult to foresee that we can address our problem of climate change if we do not capture the carbon from those fossil sources."

Both sides of the debate also rushed out with their economic analyses, with the Chamber of Commerce decrying the regulations as "job-killers" and environmental activists touting health and efficiency benefits.  Brian Murray, director of economic analysis at Nicholas Institute, told The Guardian newspaper that it makes sense to look at both estimates as the outer boundaries of the economic impact.

"I wouldn't conclude one is more biased than the other," he said in an email. "It may be reasonable to view these as upper and lower bounds of economic impact."

William Pizer, associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Profeta's colleague at the Nicholas Institute, weighed in on how to assess the regulations. Writing in the political newspaper The Hill, Pizer reminded readers that the announcement of the regulations is just a first step and many years of contentious debate and likely litigation remain ahead.

"A significant effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change will require a broad, flexible program to not only reduce existing emissions, but to create incentives for new technologies as well to encourage global action among all major emitters," Pizer wrote.

So real policy change on greenhouse gases is still at least a year away.  But Pizer said what has changed is President Obama has placed a critical environmental issue front and center of the national agenda, and the days of inaction are likely gone.