United States Emissions Reduction Policy

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United States: The Clean Power Plan

In the United States, Obama’s Clean Power Plan has taken shape as potentially one of the most effective US policies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, specifically carbon dioxide emissions. The Clean Power Plan was put in place on August 3rd, 2015. It outlines a target for reducing carbon pollution from power generation “while maintaining energy reliability and affordability,” with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the USA by 32% of 2005 levels.

Under this plan, the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency have set the targets and will offer assistance to the states in their implementation of it; the states will, however, be free to choose how they will reach the goal of reducing carbon emissions. The plan takes a two-part strategy, focusing first on a reduction in carbon emissions from fossil fuels in power generation, and second on growth in the clean energy sector. The plan also includes provisions to prevent the switch from fossil fuel-generated electricity to natural gas-generated electricity, which would perpetuate the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. The focus is specifically on power generation because this sector produces the largest percentage of the nation’s carbon emissions.

The plan draws its inspiration from the Clean Air Act, originally passed in 1970 and most recently amended in 1990, which gave the EPA most of its regulatory power in terms of enforcing air quality standards. In October 2016, the Clean Power Plan was challenged in court as states try to fight it. This challenge is based largely on a provision of the Clean Air Act that prohibits “double regulation” by the EPA. Essentially, the EPA cannot regulate an industry based on one set of standards if it is already regulating it based on another. This would prevent the Clean Power Plan from regulating carbon emissions from power plants that are already regulated for air pollution under the Clean Air Act. Despite many states’ efforts to fight it, the Clean Power Plan is largely expected to be upheld in court.

In the year since the introduction of the Clean Power Plan, it has already shown success in several areas. First, and perhaps most significantly, the plan gave President Obama the legal leverage to be involved in the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and further legitimized US commitments to global emissions reduction standards. With the legal backing of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama was able to bring the US to the climate change talks and emphasize the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Clean Power Plan has been most successful domestically in encouraging states to create their own carbon emission reduction targets and plans in order to be in compliance with the national targets. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 31 states are already projected to be more than halfway to meeting their 2022 benchmarks. Many companies in the private sector are dramatically increasing their investments in clean and renewable energy.

Finally, and perhaps the most significant evidence for the success of the Clean Power Plan, carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector have reached their lowest levels since 1993, following a significant decrease in 2015.

If the targets are successfully reached by 2030, there is potential for a new emissions reduction target to be set with much higher percentages of reduction. It remains to be seen whether states will fully comply with the current targets. The 2030 plan could be expanded to include more than simply carbon emissions, with an added focus on methane, ozone, or other greenhouse gases that are being produced in sectors besides the power generation sector. The most crucial element in the increase in emissions reduction will be the compliance and cooperation of the private sector, specifically those companies that use oil and natural gas.

There is also potential for the Clean Power Plan to influence other countries if adopted by their federal governments. As the US is a major “role model” in the world which many developing countries use as a basis for their own emissions standards, there is potential for this policy–if successful–to be adopted by them. Many developed countries have much more aggressive emissions reduction targets than those of the US, so a policy like this one might need to be more stringent.

In order to be successful in the US, the plan relies heavily on the individual efforts of the states, rather than a concerted top-down effort by the federal government. In other nations with a stronger federal government and weaker state governments, it may not be possible to rely on state compliance to enforce such a policy, but would instead be based on the standards set by the federal government.

The Clean Power Plan remains one of the most effective current US environmental policies with the most significant impact on reducing American greenhouse gas emissions. The current court case will significantly determine whether or not the Clean Power Plan will be upheld and continue to encourage reduction of carbon emissions from the power sector.

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