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Obama's Plan to Fight Climate Change Isn't Nearly Enough, But We Sorely Need It

This is the first major step towards an American clean energy economy, but it's a baby step.
June 2, 2014, 6:31pm
Image: Wikimedia

The carbon pollution heaved skyward from an aging fleet of power plants is America's biggest contribution to global warming. This has been well understood by scientists, many citizens, and even some politicians, since the early 1990s. Over the last decade or so, we've only grown more acutely aware of the dangers these heat-trapping gases pose—the drought, the rising seas, the heat waves; they're cooking us alive. But until now, there hasn't been a single federal law or regulation specifically aimed at reducing these emissions.

So here's the United States' first official effort to make serious cuts in its carbon-spewing ways: the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. It is, as some corners of the media are dubbing it, A Big Deal. It's the first time the US has taken a shot at enacting a federal regulation explicitly aimed at combating carbon emissions to fight climate change. There have been other power plant rules, sure, for toxic pollutants, and some efficiency standards for cars that had the happy effect of reducing emissions. But this is aimed squarely and unambiguously at addressing global warming.

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The long-awaited set of rules aims to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants, which currently account for nearly 40 percent of the nation's carbon pollution. The goal is to slash emissions 30 percent by 2030 from a 2005 baseline, by using just about any means necessary. The Obama administration used the mounting costs of natural disasters to help make its case.

"Climate inaction is costing us more money, in more places, more often. 2012 was the second most expensive year in US history for natural disasters," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a speech unveiling the rules. "Even the largest sectors of our economy buckle under the pressures of a changing climate."

The plan has been anxiously anticipated, both by environmental advocates who, after climate legislation stalled out in Congress years ago, see it as the US's last hope for driving down systemic carbon emissions, and by fossil fuel industry leaders, who see it as an existential threat.

"For the first time, the United States will set a national limit on how much carbon pollution can be released from existing power plants," Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "This is the single most important thing our nation can do right now to fight climate change."

Now that it's out, it's going to elicit a predictable response: Environmentalists will wish it was stronger, while industry execs who were going to hate it no matter what, are going to hate it.

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Here's how it works: The EPA is spreading the carbon reduction across the states, and leaving it up to each how exactly they want to make their cuts. States can do just about anything to reduce the amount of pollution electricity generation creates—they can ratchet up energy efficiency standards, build more solar and wind power, switch their coal plants to natural gas, or even install regional cap-and-trade programs, like the one currently operating in the Northeast or the effort soon to go into full swing in California. It's up to the states.

Politically, that's a pretty ingenious move—typically, the EPA sets a single set of standards at the federal level and enforces them nationwide, one size fits all. But with industry forces gearing up for what they have dubbed a War on Coal, Obama seems to have decided to blunt the the blowback by dissolving any clear front line. It would have been easier for the fossil fuel industry to use a single, necessarily gargantuan carbon rule—the kind previously used to reduce sulfur or mercury pollution, say—to inspire outrage.

As it is, the EPA's Gina McCarthy is pitching these rules as an incubator for clean energy investment and entrepreneurship.

"It doesn't just give states more options, it gives entrepreneurs and investors more options too," McCarthy said in her speech today. "It will unleash market forces. It will spur cleaner sources of power of all sorts."

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Building new solar and wind projects could certainly prove economically stimulating, as would giving rise to energy efficiency retrofit businesses. Calling out the "special interest skeptics" she anticipates will criticize the plan, McCarthy pointed to four decades of EPA regulation, with 70 percent cleaner air—and an economy that has more than tripled in size. "Climate action doesn't dull America's competitive edge, it sharpens it," she said. More clean energy, more good tech; more economic stimulus. And that's not all.

"In 2030, the Clean Power Plan will deliver climate and health benefits of up to $90 billion dollars," McCarthy said. "And for soot and smog reductions alone, that means for every dollar we invest in the plan, families will see $7 dollars in health benefits. And if states are smart about taking advantage of efficiency opportunities, and I know they are, when the effects of this plan are in place in 2030, average electricity bills will be eight percent cheaper."

Yet in making the Clean Power Plan so business-friendly, the Obama administration may have pulled out most of its teeth. First of all, the ambitious-looking goal is sort of an accounting trick—by setting the baseline at 2005, Obama can already claim major progress. Between then and today, emissions have already fallen 13 percent, thanks largely to the recession and the glut of cheap natural gas that's spurring a shift away from coal. So we're already halfway there, by this math.

Second, the total emissions reductions are nowhere near aggressive enough to meet scientists' recommendations for what's necessary to stave off catastrophic warming—this plan continues us well on track for more than 2˚C of temperature rise. All told, when the plan is completed, it will have reduced worldwide emissions by a paltry-looking 1.8 percent.

But that brings us to the final point. These rules are absolutely essential for one reason above all. They will restart an international debate that has been stalled out for years. They will give the US enough credibility to reasonably ask that China and India—the first and third polluting-est countries, (the US is second) and other carbon-addicted nations—begin discussing reductions in earnest, too.

If there's any hope for an international treaty that could move us toward meaningful, global warming-blunting emissions reductions, then official US action is the vital piece. With it in place, there's at least a glimmer of hope that we can prevent a carbon-saturated, immensely hotter world with seas levels that are dozens of feet higher.

"The most costly thing we can do is to do nothing," as McCarthy said.