June 3, 2014, by Kieran Cooke
Passing clouds? Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant in Virginia, US
Image: via Wikimedia Commons
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE The Obama administration has announced what could be its biggest move to tackle climate change − with major emissions cuts on the way in what is seen by some as a policy game-changer for the US LONDON, 3 June − The US administration led by Barack Obama has promised much and delivered little so far in the battle against climate change. But that’s all about to change with this week’s announcement by the heavy hitters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that existing power plants will, for the first time, have to make substantial cuts in their CO2 emissions. Under the EPA proposal − termed the Clean Power Plan − the US’s 1,900 power plants will have to reduce their emissions by 25% on 2005 levels by 2025 and make a 30% reduction by 2030. States and their utility companies have one year to submit plans on how they will go about implementing emissions cuts. If such plans are not forthcoming, the EPA has the power to impose its own emissions reduction schemes. “Climate change, fuelled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy and our way of life,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, announcing the proposal. “By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe, while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids. We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment – our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation and create jobs.”
Power plants account for about 30% of total US CO2 emissions. Although there are restrictions on the amount of sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other toxic substances the power utilities can emit, there have been no restrictions until now on CO2 emissions. Other countries − particularly fast-developing China and India − have frequently criticised the US for calling for cutbacks in global CO2 pollution, while doing little to limit its own emissions. Emissions of CO2 in the US have been falling in recent years – not due to any new regulations, but rather to the switch by many energy companies from coal to the less polluting shale gas. Only about a third of US power utilities now use coal to fuel their operations. In Europe, the European Union has set binding targets of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 over 1990 levels, and by 40% by 2030. The EPA proposal sets various pollution reduction targets for different states, depending on their present levels of CO2 emissions. Some states, such as Illinois and Ohio, are heavily dependent on coal for their electricity supplies. They will be allowed to pollute more than others in the short term, but will have to make big cuts in the years ahead. As part of a comprehensive package aimed at reducing overall emissions, states and power companies can earn money by trading credits on an ever more active US carbon market.
Politically powerful and well-financed groups of climate change sceptics are likely to mount fierce opposition to the EPA proposals. Sections of corporate America have already denounced the plans, saying the proposals will seriously hurt the US economy. The Obama administration seems ready to counter the critics. Last month, it released its National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming had “moved firmly into the present”. And President Obama used much of his weekly radio broadcast to the nation last weekend to talk of the dangers of a warming world. “As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said. “The shift to a low carbon economy won’t happen overnight and it will require tough choices along the way. But a low carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come.” – Climate News Network
Kieran Cooke, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. He now focuses on environmental issues