The Social Cost of Carbon and It’s Effect on Your Microwave

Newly revised standards for energy efficiency in microwaves reflect an updated estimate for the detrimental impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions on society—the so-called “social cost of carbon.”

On May 31 of this year, Ernest Moniz, the nation’s energy secretary, unveiled the adjusted “Microwave Rule,” which diminishes the energy demands of the machines in standby mode. Specifically, the estimated reductions are 75 percent for countertop and non-convection over-the-range microwaves and 51 percent for convection over-the-range models. This translates, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, to 38 million metric tons less of carbon-dioxide emissions and a net benefit of $4.6 billion dollars across the next 30 years.

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The Social Cost of Carbon

As Brad Plumber of the Washington Post detailed in a writeup about the Microwave Rule change, the concept of the social cost of carbon was quantified in the U.S. in 2010, when a dozen federal agencies came up with a value of $21 per ton of carbon dioxide. They crunched the numbers by analyzing various climate models and coming up with a measure for defining the actual negative effects of emissions and associated global warming on the nation’s populace down the road.

The effort is a complicated and difficult one, requiring as it does input from many different scientific assessments of potential future effects of climate change and a reasonable estimation of what kind of “costs” such impacts may have to generations to come.

Revised climate models (specifically forecasting more extensive damage from rising sea level due to increasing global temperatures and more substantial melting of glaciers and ice caps) have prompted the latest increase in the social cost of carbon. From that $21-per-ton figure in 2010 it’s increased to $36 per ton in 2013. The associated benefit of energy-saving measures such as the new requirements for microwave ovens in standby mode can be estimated using the social cost of carbon, projecting the amount of value accrued by reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. The $4.6 billion in benefits from the newly tinkered-with Microwave Rule could also be called a “discount rate.”

Potential Impacts

The new estimate of the social cost of carbon and the associated discount rates may result in more stringent environmental regulations. As Plumber notes in the Washington Post, that’s because a higher social cost of carbon makes the discount rates from emissions-reduction efforts more significant, and thus laws establishing such efforts more valuable in the long-term. This could affect entire industries, from Texas energy providers to New York appliance manufacturers.

Many believe global warming to be the single-most challenging and important crisis of our time. Part of the difficulty in understanding and addressing the problem is the incredibly complex ecological systems involved in its manifestation. The extreme contentiousness of the issue is another complicating factor. As hard as it can be to predict its effects, the notion of the social cost of carbon gives policy-makers and industries alike some more educated footing by which to proceed in tackling climate change in a reasonable manner. Putting a pricetag on a ton of carbon dioxide has potential as a starkly effective evocation of a warming atmosphere’s ultimate consequences.

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