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Sept. 19, 2019, 10:11 a.m. EDT

Don’t worry: The Supreme Court won’t condemn us to climate disaster

Economics of climate-change mitigation matters much more than politics and law

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By Tim Mullaney


Getty Images/iStockphoto
Renewable energy is getting cheaper, and even a conservative court can’t stop that.

There’s nothing so frantic as English majors writing about climate change, a problem at the intersection of science, law and economics. I take scientists’ word for much of it, but know something about climate economics and a painfully won degree’s worth of law.

So I’ll take on the latest panic of the climate left — that John Roberts’ Supreme Court will eviscerate climate-protection legislation once it is passed in 2021— and try soothing logic.

The basic reassuring rebuttal is: The court matters some, but prices matter much, much more, and the declining prices of renewable power and electric cars mean carbon emissions will begin to be solved in earnest in the next decade. No matter what courts do.

The fuss stems from a new report by liberal activist group Take Back the Court , arguing that the Roberts Court will do to the climate policy that Democratic presidential candidates promise what it almost did (but did not) to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. That is, declare it unconstitutional under readings of the law — especially the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause — that lawyers thought had been discredited in the 1930s.

“The Roberts Court has been increasingly emboldened to embrace radical theories for partisan reasons,” the report asserts. “In their challenge to [ACA], conservatives used arguments once considered beyond the pale... If Congress implements climate-change legislation, the Supreme Court could be expected to recycle this playbook.”

It won’t matter

Fair enough, aside from the rather large fact that Roberts himself stopped ACA from being overturned. But here’s another fair question: Will it matter?

To understand why not, begin with easy-to-digest numbers. The Paris Accords called for nations to reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2025 (from 2005 levels), get electricity production from renewable sources to 20% of the total, and increase building efficiency by 20%. The U.S. agreed to a 26% to 28% carbon reduction.

Other numbers you should understand tell us where carbon comes from in the U.S. About 93% of U.S. carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels for energy. Mostly, this means making electricity and powering transportation.

To reduce carbon by 26%, or even 40%, you need a big reduction in electricity emissions and to begin cutting vehicle emissions. You don’t need much else. That’s beginning to happen now — without the Green New Deal or anything else the court can void.

The reason 20%-25% reductions are easy is that it’s now economically feasible to make nonsubsidized renewable electricity, and the inflection point is nearly here for cars. That’s why Democrats’ climate plans all now target bigger reductions than the Paris accords.

Reducing emissions now

Driven by plummeting costs of natural gas, and rapid declines for renewables (which will provide 18% of U.S. electricity this year, according to the Department of Energy), utilities have already cut carbon 27% since 2005, the Edison Electric Institute says.

Basically, the one-two of natural gas and renewables is wiping out coal, once 70% of U.S. electricity but running in the low 20s for parts of 2019. Even now, coal is about two-thirds of electricity-related carbon emissions. It’s that much dirtier than everything else.

Finishing off coal does the electricity piece of reducing carbon almost by itself. That’s before using policy to encourage utilities to retire gas-fired plants in favor of more renewables (which is coming, too).

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