The Clean Power Plan will reduce USA greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity generation sector by 32% off of 2005 levels by 2030. This is about 800 million tonnes of CO2 gas.
Some people argue that 800 million tonnes is a small number, in the global context. Global CO2 emissions in 2013 were 34,082 million tonnes. 800 is a mere 2.3% of 34,082. There are those who argue that the Clean Power Plan will hurt the American economy and only reduce global emissions a tiny amount. Their conclusion is that it doesn’t make sense for the USA to reduce pollution such as small amount, because the global effect will be slight.
This is an old argument and it’s long been recognized as a way of thinking that leads to collective destruction. It leads to what is called “the tragedy of the commons.” Consider a common resource that is owned by no one, but which everyone can use. It is completely logical (from an individual point of view) for each person to exploit that resource as much as possible believing that, if I don’t use it, someone else will. But what makes perfect sense from an individual perspective, ends up harming everyone. This kind of thinking has led to over grazing, over fishing, and, now, the changing of the Earth’s climate.
800 million tonnes of CO2 is a significant number. It’s more than the entire yearly emissions of Germany, the world’s 3rd largest economy. Moreover, there are many European countries that are taking extraordinary steps to reduce their emissions, and at high cost to residents and tax payers. If the logic of individual thinking has weight in the USA, which is the 2nd largest polluter, how much more compelling should that logic be in smaller countries? And if those smaller countries don’t act, and we don’t act, we are surely on the path of global tragedy.
It is important we don’t let the logic of individual thinking shape how we make national or state environmental and energy policy.
directs research at the Energy Trans Lab