The Clean Power Plan

Executive Order Sidesteps Congress, Takes on Global Warming

The Clean Power Plan is a policy aimed at combating anthropogenic climate change (global warming) that was first proposed by the EPA in June 2014, and endorsed by US President Barack Obama. Editor in Chief DREW GOWING looks at how sharply policy in Washington may change, and if or whether the Trump Administration will — as promised —dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency in almost every form.

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BLASTING air conditioners, revving gas guzzlers and pumping oil, Americans have long attracted censure for their wasteful ways. After all, they produce a disproportionately large share—15 %—of global carbon dioxide emissions. But new rules from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced on August 3rd, signal a green shift in American policy. The Clean Power Plan introduces a raft of emission-reduction goals, tailored for each state, which the EPA believes will trigger a drop in carbon pollution from power stations by 870m tonnes by 2030, a 32% decline when measured against 2005 levels.

An extension of the Clean Air Act of 1970, these are the first-ever national standards for curbing carbon pollution from power plants, America’s largest source of greenhouse gases. States will be able to decide for themselves exactly how and when they cut their emissions, but need to submit their plans by 2018 and to start acting on them by 2022. The plan reckons that new efficiency measures and greater access to gas and renewables will lower energy bills for American families.

A little over a quarter of electricity will still come from coal. But a new incentives program, not touted in previous drafts, encourages states to turn to wind and solar power instead of simply swapping coal for gas. Though gas generates half the pollution of coal, the plan aims to deter states from getting too hooked on another fossil fuel. Instead, the EPA will award pollution credits to states that increase energy efficiency and move quickly to generate power from renewable sources. These credits can then be used to offset emissions released at a later date. The new plan also gives states more freedom to pursue carbon trading among themselves. The share of American power generated by renewables is projected to swell to 28% by 2030, up from around 13% now.

Obama used an Executive Order (not Congress) to curb Global Warming

The new standards have been met with both fanfare and fury. Jennifer Macedonia from the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a think-tank, praises them for setting more realistic expectations for states and utilities, which now have an extra two years to prepare themselves. This reprieve creates “a better chance of reaching a long-term solution,” she says. Others see the dallying as a climb-down, and complain that cutting 2005 emissions by 32% by 2030 shows a pretty puny level of ambition, given that the boom in natural gas from shale—which is much cleaner than coal—has already reduced emissions by 15% in the past decade.

The smooth passage of the plan is unlikely. While the Supreme Court deemed carbon dioxide a pollutant in 2007, thereby placing it under the EPA’s remit, legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan will come thick and fast. Coal groups and many Republican politicians reject the standards outright. Many are eagerly anticipating a new Republican president, who would have little interest in maintaining one of the bolder initiatives of Barack Obama’s environmental legacy (though his administration’s increased fuel efficiency standards may yet do more to curb greenhouse-gas emissions).

Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, three of the top Republican candidates for the top job, have swiftly poured scorn on the Clean Power Plan. (Hillary Clinton, more predictably, has come out in favour of the initiative.) A number of coal companies have threatened to sue the Obama administration. But the power of coal groups is weaker than many realise. Although touting the industry's employment possibilities is an effective rural rallying cry, almost twice as many people work in the solar industry than for King Coal. Besides, international markets and a supply glut are doing plenty of harm to this dirty fuel: the price has more than halved in the past four years. More than 20 American coal firms have gone bust since 2012, including Alpha Natural, which filed for bankruptcy on August 3rd.

Even if domestic leadership on the EPA’s proposals remains uncertain, the plan suggests America wishes to occupy a bigger role at the climate negotiations in Paris this December. Ethan Zindler, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says the measures finally “sync up international promises with domestic policies.” America’s emissions-reduction deal with China late last year now has more bite, for example. And any indication that America is more open to multilateral negotiations is welcome news elsewhere in the world, even if many allies had hoped for a more ambitious environmental agenda.



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