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New EPA Data Brings Home the Reality of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

How much greenhouse gas does your neighborhood power plant emit?

Just a few blocks from my apartment, a ConEdison power plant looms over the East River. I don’t think about it much—it’s not particularly pleasant to walk by, but I rarely go that way, and it doesn’t smell or emit clouds of smoky pollution. It does emit a lot of carbon dioxide, though: more than 2.2 million metric tons in 2010, making it the sixth-largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in New York State that year.

The only reason I know how much greenhouse gas my neighborhood power plant dumped into the atmosphere is because today, the Environmental Protection Agency published the first results of its new greenhouse-gas reporting program. Since 1990, the EPA has depended on aggregated national data to calculate the country’s total emissions, but 2010 was the first year individual polluters were required to tell the agency exactly how much carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases they produced. The EPA is making the resulting data publicly available online, and the site (although a bit sluggish) provides a much clearer picture of exactly where our emissions come from.

The data shows the vast majority of them come from power plants. In 2010, more than 1,500 power plants emitted a total of 2,324 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e. Refineries, the second-largest-offending sector, contributed just 183 million metric tons of CO2e. (The largest share of greenhouse emissions are carbon dioxide, and measuring the total in carbon dioxide equivalent allows numbers crunchers to talk about carbon, methane, nitrous oxides and other greenhouse pollutants all in one breath.)

It’s not a secret that electricity generation accounts for a huge chunk of the nation's carbon footprint, but the EPA now has the detailed data to highlight exactly how huge. One of the site’s visualization tools will create a tree map of data subsets: Check out how power plants dominate this map of sector-by-sector data.

This release of data is exactly the sort of good-government initiative the Obama administration promised to deliver. The EPA has made its raw data easily available for download for data nerds and created a portal where people less excited about spreadsheets can get the information in a more accessible form. The site doesn’t explore every question the data could answer: I want to know which state has the highest emissions per capita and which plants create the most emissions per megawatt of electricity generated, for instance. But now that the information is publicly available, journalists and researchers can start making those calculations themselves.

Parsing data and wading through larger pools of information won’t make emissions disappear. Being able to pinpoint the carbon-spewing plant down the street makes the challenge less abstract, though. And deepening citizens’ understanding of the challenge this country faces in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions can help create advocates for change.

Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

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