Carnegie Mellon University
February 08, 2019

Study Suggests Environmental Regulations May Have Unintended Consequences in Energy Production

By Caitlin Kizielewicz

Caitlin Kizielewicz
  • Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
  • 412-554-0074

Many countries have passed environmental laws to preserve natural ecosystems. Although the regulations seem to have improved preservation efforts, they may have had unintended consequences in energy production, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions.

That's the conclusion of a new study in the journal PLOS One by a Carnegie Mellon University researcher.

Image of Edson Severnini
Edson Severnini

"This study is the first to suggest that environmental regulations focused only on preserving ecosystems appear to have encouraged electric utilities to substitute dirtier fuels for hydropower in electricity generation," said study author Edson Severnini, assistant professor of economics and public policy at CMU's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. "According to our estimates, on average, each megawatt of fossil fuel power-generating capacity added to the grid because of environmental constraints on hydropower development led to an increase in annual carbon dioxide emissions of about 1,400 tons."

Severnini examined the tradeoff in the United States from 1998 to 2014 between efforts to preserve ecosystems and greenhouse gas emissions. In his work, he used a simple general equilibrium model for the electric industry. According to the model, consumers value electricity, preservation of the ecosystem, and climate stability, but generating electricity damages the environment, through either construction of hydroelectric dams or greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to climate change.

The study used two sources of data. The first is a 1990s report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the undeveloped potential hydropower resources in the United States. The report contains information on locations and potential capacity of all such resources, which allowed the author to compute the potential hydropower that cannot be developed due to regulations intended to preserve the wilderness and wildlife.

The second source of data is the Environmental Protection Agency's Emissions and Generation Resource Integrated Database, which features environmental characteristics for most electric power produced in the United States.

In all, Severnini's sample included 110 counties in 33 states.

The study suggests that while environmental constraints on hydropower may have preserved the wilderness and wildlife by restricting the development of hydroelectric projects, the restrictions led to more greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases, environmental regulations replaced hydropower (a renewable, relatively low-emitting source of energy) with conventional fossil-fuel power (which is highly polluting).

"Do environmental regulations aimed at preserving natural ecosystems protect the environment?" Severnini asked. "The answer seems to be not necessarily. The findings of my study highlight the pernicious incentives of environmental regulations that are focused on only one type of power plant — in this case, hydroelectric dams — and points to the importance of an integrated regulatory framework that considers both ecosystem preservation and greenhouse gas emissions."

Summarized from an article in PLOS One, "The Unintended Impact of Ecosystem Preservation on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Evidence from Environmental Constraints on Hydropower Development in the United States" by Severnini, E (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2019 Edson Severnini. All rights reserved.

Carnegie Mellon University is committed to educating, empowering and aligning its community around the world to address the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, which aim to create a more peaceful, prosperous planet with just and inclusive societies. Recognizing the critical contributions that universities are making through education, research and practice, CMU publicly committed to undertaking a Voluntary University Review of the Global Goals. The 17 Global Goals cover wide-ranging issues, including reducing violence, ending extreme poverty, promoting equitable education, fighting inequality and injustice, advancing economic growth and decent work, and preventing the harmful effects of climate change by 2030.

The preceding story demonstrates CMU's work toward attaining Global Goals 12 and 13.