The U.S. EPA rule proposed recently to reduce carbon emissions from electrical power plants is a positive step nationally, but as currently written it will do little to reduce Alaska's emissions, where electric utilities contribute only a small part of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) total.
The 2008 State of Alaska GHG Inventory estimates that, while total GHG emissions in Alaska are about 53 million tons per year, emissions from the electricity generation sector are only about 3 million tons per year.
By far the two largest sources of GHG emissions here in Alaska are the oil and gas industry (15 million tons) and commercial aviation (12 million tons), together accounting for over half our annual total. As proposed, the EPA rule does nothing to reduce these, or other emission sources. Thus, while this new rule will make a difference nationally and should be adopted, in Alaska it won't reduce our total emissions by more than one or two percent. Every little bit helps, but we can't ignore the big bits.
If we really want to make a dent in Alaska's carbon emissions, we need to address our two largest sources - oil & gas, and commercial aviation. At a minimum, the proposed EPA rule should be expanded to include the oil & gas sector, which in Alaska is the single largest emission source.
Alaska's Renewable Energy Fund has been helpful, but absent emissions regulation or a carbon tax, it will not be enough to substantially reduce emissions.
Of course the largest part of Alaska's carbon footprint is the oil, gas, coal produced for export, which is not accounted for in the Alaska GHG inventory. At peak oil production, Alaska oil exports contributed over 300 million tons of CO2 a year to the global atmosphere. The 17 billion barrels of oil produced in Alaska to date have added over 7 billion tons of CO2 to the global atmosphere.
Thus, with only 0.01 percent of world's population, Alaska has contributed roughly 1 percent of the total anthropogenic carbon to the global atmosphere throughout history. So, Alaska owns at least 1 percent of the climate chaos in the world.
Considering that the current annual cost of climate change worldwide already exceeds $1 trillion, together with the World Health Organization estimate that 150,000 deaths each year are linked to these emissions, Alaska's current share of the global carbon impact is at least $10 billion and 1,500 deaths per year. Economists still fail to account for these indirect costs of carbon economies.
Regardless what we do with emissions here in Alaska, a dramatic reduction in global carbon emissions is undeniably in our long-term interest. To stabilize world climate and ecosystems, global carbon emissions need to drop 80 percent below current levels. This will be difficult, but it is achievable with broader emissions regulation, greater efficiency standards, a carbon tax, and cap-and-trade markets.
Alaska needs to do more than simply study climate change. Rather than habitually opposing all efforts to reduce carbon emissions nationally and globally, it would be in Alaska's enlightened self-interest to join such efforts. It is not only possible for a carbon-exporting state like Alaska to advocate more responsible and efficient use of carbon globally, it is an ethical imperative, particularly as Alaska has contributed disproportionately to global climate change, and climate change represents such a direct threat to the future of Alaska.
And, we need to get serious with efforts to manage and adapt to the effects of climate change here at home, as proposed in the 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy. Unfortunately on this issue, Alaska state government has been missing-in-action. Governor Parnell terminated the former Alaska Climate Change Subcabinet, and has declined requests to join other western states in addressing regional climate change issues. And the legislature has ignored the climate issue. State neglect on this issue is a serious mistake.
Hopefully in the near future, wisdom and reason may transcend the shortsighted petro-politics of Alaska, and state government will begin to provide the necessary leadership on this grave threat to the future of Alaska.
Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist based in Anchorage, and was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980 to 2010.
By RICK STEINER