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Tamminen: Battle of the Carbon Titans

As summer approaches, so do the action-fantasy movies. Last week, the venue was not the local cineplex, but another location noted for outlandish egos, special effects, and scripts that require substantial amounts of imagination to fill in the gaps—Washington DC.

Travelif | Photodisc | Getty Images

Two titans of the wars to tackle climate change and modernize the nation’s energy supply released their blockbusters to mixed reviews. First, USEPA released rules under existing law (doesn’t everyone love a good sequel?) that would mandate carbon cuts from the largest facilities—those responsible for about 70 percent of US carbon emissions—after finding that the public was “endangered” (an essential ingredient for any big action-adventure plot). Facilities will have to incorporate the "best available control technology" to minimize their greenhouse gas output, setting the stage for more epic battles over who has done enough and who has not.

Later in the week, Senators Kerry and Lieberman unveiled the American Power Act (think “American Gladiator” meets “Power Rangers”) that aims to cut carbon some 80 percent by 2050 using a mixture of carrots and sticks. This proposal sets both a floor and a ceiling on carbon prices to get companies in the habit of paying for the right to pollute, but avoids price shocks that could occur if markets were allowed to function without controls (think “Wall Street 2”). Like any good marketer, Senator Kerry trashed the competition, saying industry could either suffer under the heavy hand of the USEPA or embrace his approach that provided protections and incentives.

So will either of these offerings make good date night entertainment? USEPA’s actions are solid environmental protections, especially when added to the California tailpipe emissions reductions that it now has federalized. By 2020, America would likely meet its obligations on the global scale, but at the highest probable cost. Of course lawsuits may slow implementation of these rules and Congressional action could quickly preempt them.

Kerry-Lieberman looks more glossy with something for everyone in a very long opus. Unfortunately, that’s where this one goes astray—billions given to coal, oil, and nuclear interests will ensure that we are held hostage to the most polluting and limited fuels for decades to come, undermining the very concept of the proposed legislation. State programs that are already yielding results would be curtailed and no significant carbon reductions would occur by 2020. Like many summer popcorn movies, this one is full of sound and fury, but not much else.

Last week was not a total bust at the carbon box office though, because a battle of another kind of titans was shaping up without any government prodding. Lighting Science Group and Home Depot announced the release of made-in-the-USA LED light bulbs with 50 percent more light at half the cost of GE’s foreign-made version, which was released just last month. These “EcoSmart” bulbs use 80 percent less energy—and therefore 80 percent less carbon emissions—than an incandescent bulb and are recyclable, dimmable, and contain no toxic mercury like compact flourescents. Home Depot said that just one of their new LED bulbs, installed in a newborn baby’s room, “will probably not have to be replaced until the child is ready to graduate college” and would pay for itself in two years, saving $155 in energy cost over its life.

Savings like that will pay for a lot of movie tickets and still leave enough to buy a stamp for a letter to the President and Congress to tell them we need more action on carbon that delivers real solutions and less Hollywood-style fantasy.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).