Last week’s action by the European Parliament to adopt the “Schwarzenegger clause” as a requirement for new coal plants built after 2015 shows the danger of locking in well-intentioned half-measures.

The Schwarzenegger clause is a California regulatory requirement that emerged out of SB 1368, enacted in 2006 and rightly hailed at that time as a huge step forward. The basis of the standard was a requirement that carbon dioxide emissions from any new coal plant supplying power to California customers should not exceed the emissions of a combined cycle gas plant. Since new combined cycle gas plants produce 800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, some staffers argued that 800 should be the limit [PDF] on new coal plants as well, but a looser limit of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (lb CO2/MWh) was ultimately approved, equivalent to 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (kg CO2/MWh).

State Senate President pro Tem Don Perata told the U.S. Congress, "California enacted SB 1368 to send a strong signal to the western energy markets. Our energy must be clean — we won’t buy power from coal plants spewing greenhouse gases by the ton. To be clear, California has not said ‘no’ to coal; rather, we’ve said that we want cleaner coal plants that can provide us energy without producing massive global warming pollution."

Unfortunately, Perata was wrong on both points: (1) SB 1368 does allow coal plants to continue spewing greenhouses gases by the ton; (2) unless it continues to be tightened until it becomes a great deal stricter, the standard set by SB 1368, even if adhered to by all new coal plants, could still result in massive global warming.

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The central problem with the Schwarzenegger standard is that it actually reduces emissions by only about a third in comparison to the current generation of coal plants, some of which are capable of emitting as little as 738 kg CO2/MWh without  carbon capture technology. For these plants the Schwarzenegger standard means a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. And that reduction shrinks yet further if the net effect of the increased mining needed to fuel the carbon capture and sequestration process is taken into effect. As shown by Peter Viebahn [PDF], increased mining causes significant increases of methane, a greenhouse gas whose potency is 72 times that of carbon dioxide averaged over two decades, or 25 times that of carbon dioxide averaged over a century.

After taking effect in California, the 1,100 lb CO2/MWh standard was adopted in Washington state and Maine before being embraced by the European Union.

As standards go, it was a decent starting point, but as a long-term standard that could govern emissions for the next 50 or 60 years, it’s a disaster.

In contrast, the E.U.’s own modeling studies [PDF] considered only removal rates ranging from 83.5 percent to 99.5 percent. Even at those high rates of removal, the studies concluded that the added cost of removal would be 1.5 – 2.5 cents (Euro) per kilowatt hour, hardly a prohibitive increase.

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Ben Caldecott and Thomas Sweetman of the U.K. think tank Policy Exchange have proposed [PDF] that the starting point should have been 350 kg CO2/MWh, dropping to 170 kg CO2/MWh by 2015. They questioned why non-sequestering gas plants should have been used as the basis for a coal plant standard in the first place, proposing that such plants should themselves be required to meet a standard of 70 kg CO2/MWh.

At the very least, the standard set by the European Union, which goes into effect a full eight years after the implementation of the California standard, should reflect some degree of progress toward full sequestration.

If the European Union does not quickly tighten its new standard, say by ramping it up to 85 percent or 90 percent carbon removal for plants built after 2020, how significant will the damage be?

The answer: very significant, because Europe is on the verge of embarking on an unprecedented coal boom.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that China is outpacing the rest of the world in building coal plants, the International Energy Agency has projected that between 2011 and 2020 the OECD (most of Europe plus the  U.S.), with 150 million fewer people than China, will build 10 percent more coal capacity than China (184 GW for the OECD vs. 168 GW for China).

If anything close to that much new coal capacity is built in compliance with the tragically lax Schwarzenegger clause, then a very large chunk of the European coal fleet, capturing a mere 32 percent of its emissions, will continue to spew carbon dioxide for much of the coming century.

Perhaps the worst thing about the action of the European Union is that it seems to ratify the Schwarzenegger clause as a world standard, rather than treating it as the stepping stone toward stricter standards that it should be. With California, Washington, Maine, and now the European Union all settling on 500 kg CO2/MWh, why should any new jurisdictions adopting carbon standards adopt any stricter standard?

But even if the damage were to be limited just to Europe, the outcome seems to threaten prospects for meeting the levels of greenhouse gas reduction that climate scientists now say are needed. For example, a recent paper by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen [PDF] modeled the effects of a coal phase-out beginning in 2012 and ending with zero carbon dioxide emissions in 2050. Even aided by the assumption that oil and gas emissions become self-limiting during that period due to peaking production, the Kharecha/Hansen scenario forecasts carbon dioxide levels reaching the dangerous levels of 428 to 446 parts per million before beginning to decline.

Climate science, of course, is not capable of saying exactly what a safe level of carbon dioxide might be. But given the reality that reaching tipping points means provoking uncontrollable feedback loops, it is pure folly for regulators to pretend that merely removing a third or so of carbon dioxide from the most carbon-intense fuel source makes any sense whatsoever, unless it is quickly replaced by a truly meaningful standard. If the European Parliament were serious about protecting the planet from runaway global warming, it would enact a schedule of increasingly tight carbon dioxide emissions requirements culminating in the strict emissions levels modeled by its own analysts. Allowing the starter levels represented by the Schwarzenegger clause to harden into a permanent standard is public policy at its worst.