PEC Examines the 2015 Climate Change Action Plan Update

On August 22, Governor Wolf’s Administration officially released the 2015 Climate Change Action Plan Update, as required by the Pennsylvania Climate Change Act of 2008. In general, the plan is a useful document, outlining some of the key opportunities for cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. In particular, I am thrilled to see such an emphasis on energy efficiency in the building sector, which is not only a cost-effective means of reducing GHG emissions, but has the potential to provide significant co-benefits, including cost-savings and growth in employment.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Pennsylvania’s Plan, though, is that it does not set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A plan is meant to be a roadmap, but if we don’t know where we’re trying to go, how can we choose the right way to get there? Without a clear goal, it is impossible for policymakers and community leaders to choose the most cost-effective, beneficial combination of actions.

The plan includes a GHG inventory for the state, reporting current and projected emissions in gross and net totals. If we focus on gross emissions, which include all GHGs  being released in the state, we can determine exactly how much carbon we’d need to cut if we chose a specific reduction goal and target year, for instance 50% or 80% by 2030 or 2050.

While the updated plan only inventories emissions through 2012, it uses the EPA’s projection tool to project emissions for 2015 – 2030. In 2012, statewide gross emissions were 287.38 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents, (MMTCO2e).

Carbon emissions table

These targets sound aggressive, but they’re in line with what is being recommended by many reputable sources, including the IPCC. Eleven of the work plans quantify the annual reductions that would result in the year 2030. All of these actions combined would equate to a reduction in annual emissions of 38.58 MMTCO2e in the year 2030, as compared to emissions in 2012, equivalent to a 13% reduction—a significant reduction, but certainly short of where we need to be going.  There is no information in the Plan Update regarding what recommendations were not included, and whether those might have had a bigger impact on emissions.

Cost Effectiveness vs. Impact

The table on page two of the plan ranks all 12 actions by cost-effectiveness and potential for GHG reductions. To make it easier to compare these two metrics visually, I created this scatter plot — actions towards the top have the greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions, whereas those that are furthest to the right have the greatest potential for economic benefit.

Climate scatter plot

To be clear, this graph doesn’t tell the full story — for example, biodigesters may not be significant to GHG reductions, but can play an important role in improving water quality through better manure management — but it provides a way to visualize where we can get the most “bang for our buck.”

Climate change exacerbates nearly all of the current environmental challenges we face, including air pollution, water quality, and threats to ecosystems. It is deserving of significant action at the local, state, national, and international levels. While it is encouraging to see Pennsylvania actively updating its plan, it is implementation of the plan that counts.