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Finally, US gets serious about climate change

The new regulations on power plant emissions announced yesterday by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency mark the nation’s first truly serious assault on climate change. The proposed rules, which will be subject to a four-month comment period, call for cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent within 15 years. It’s a workable, realistic goal that will spur investment in low-emission energy technology, including wind and solar power. Phased in over a long enough period to minimize economic damage, it would nonetheless achieve a reduction in carbon emissions equivalent to taking nearly two-thirds of the nation’s passenger vehicles off the road. The clearer air should save thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars in health benefits. And it would finally give the United States the credibility to push other countries, including fast-growing, fast-polluting China, to enact similar measures. It is, in every sense, a major step — and a long overdue and welcome one.

The announcement yesterday follows Obama’s 2011 agreement with automakers to build cars that average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But as important as fuel efficiency in automobiles may be, power plants are the largest concentrated source of carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA’s new power-plant rules will reduce overall emissions by at least 80 times more metric tons of carbon than the regulations for cars.

Almost all credible reports suggest the world is passing the point where it can reverse, or eliminate, global warming. But that only means it’s more urgent than ever to push for historic carbon reductions. Nonetheless, many politicians — including the usual global-warming deniers and those from both parties in fossil-fuel-producing states — rushed to claim the new rules would cause steep economic damage. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of coal-state Kentucky laughably warned of a “unilateral dismantling of our own economic supremacy.” That’s refuted by the entire history of environmental protection, in which self-interested businesses and doomsayers predicted huge economic costs to the landmark clean-air and clean-water regulations of the ’70s, only to see more jobs created in the technology boom that followed the new regulations. The hundreds of thousands of families heading to clean Boston-area beaches this summer should go back and read all the dubious predictions of economic collapse when clean-water rules were first unveiled four decades ago.

In a wise move, the EPA is not dictating to states how to get to their prescribed reductions, and is giving them two years to submit plans of action. Some, such as Massachusetts, already have relatively low emissions, and thus might choose to adopt more wind and solar energy to achieve greater reductions. Higher-polluting states may choose to replace filthy coal plants with cleaner natural-gas plants. Other regions could emulate the Northeast’s cap-and-trade plan, in which plants that are able to achieve superior reductions can benefit by essentially selling the right to pollute to higher-emissions plants. This system, which ensures that emissions get cut in the most economically efficient way, has helped foster dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions since it was implemented in 2009. Energy prices have fallen 8 percent over that period, while the private sector has rushed in to fund energy-efficiency technology and alternative fuels. What worked here can work in other places, as the entire nation prepares for a historic conversion from a fossil-fuel economy to one based largely on renewable energy. The EPA’s plan is a vital first step.