The Clean Power Plan: Obama’s “Last Sweeping Effort to Remake America”

wind5Earlier this week, President Obama unveiled his latest plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. Dubbed the “Clean Power Plan”, it calls for the power industry to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30% by 2030 (from 2005 levels).

To achieve this reduction, the plan establishes individual targets for states. The targets reflect each state’s economy, current emission levels, and capacity for cuts. For example, coal-dependent Kentucky has a target of 19%, while hydro-rich Washington has a target of 84%. The plan, like the Affordable Care Act, also gives states great flexibility in meeting their targets. Among other actions, states can shut down coal plants, invest in wind and solar power, install energy efficient technology, join a cap-and-trade program, or enact a state tax on carbon pollution.

From a purely environmental perspective, many are hailing the plan. After all, the United States’ roughly 1000 power plants account for nearly 40% of all US carbon emissions – and currently face no carbon pollution limits. They also emit harmful particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, which are expected to decline by over 25% as a “co-benefit” of the plan.

Some also believe that the Clean Power Plan will shape climate change policy abroad. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, claims that she “fully expects [the US plan] to spur others in taking concrete action”. (This includes countries like Canada, which have largely tied their emissions targets to the US). Moreover, by sending “a strong signal that the US is serious about reducing carbon pollution”, the plan will “give Washington legitimacy in international talks next year to develop a framework for fighting climate change”.

But despite all the praise for Obama’s “most ambitious plan yet“, not all environmentalists are giving the plan a green thumbs up. First, some feel that the plan does not go far enough. They note that carbon emissions already fell 15% between 2005 and 2013, in part due to the “retirement of coal plants in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas”. This suggests that the 30% target by 2030 is “arguably easier to reach”. In the words of Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, the “Obama plan in effect takes twice as long (16 years) to cut as much carbon pollution as the country just did in 8 years”.

Furthermore, the Obama plan is limited to only one sector of the economy: power generation. According to the Food & Water Watch and the Institute for Policy Studies, this narrow scope will leave the US “far short of the IPCC’s goals for developed countries of economy-wide reductions of 15 to 40% below 1990 emission by 2020”. In fact, with these targets alone, US emissions will still exceed 1990 levels by 2030.

Finally, the Obama plan aims to phase fossil fuels (particularly coal) out of the US energy mix.  However, until economically competitive substitutes hit the market on a large scale, this may be a “waste of effort”. As highlighted by Steve Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, “The vast increases in fossil fuel based energy use in China and India alone virtually guarantee continued global warming. Only a lower-priced, reliable, and convenient replacement for fossil fuels will make a difference”.

So what can we make of this debate? Will the Clean Power Plan turn the “red, white, and blue” green? Certainly, by targeting the single largest source of carbon dioxide in the United States, the plan is a “creditable” start. And, without question, it is better than the status quo (no carbon regulations for power plants). However, the plan alone is not the panacea for global climate change. To make real headway, it must be complemented by investment in research, development, and dissemination of renewal substitutes.

To learn more about the Clean Power Plan, please contact the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the US Climate Action Network, or our partners: Clean Air Cool Planet and the American Lung Association in California.

Flickr photo credit: Thunderbolt_TW


Waiting to Inhale: Air Pollution a Problem at Home and Abroad

smoke2In mid-January, air pollution in Beijing, China reached an alarming level. According to the municipal government, Beijing’s air contained 500 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter.This is 20 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization and almost twice the level deemed “hazardous” by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In fact, the pollution was so debilitating that Beijing authorities closed 4 major highways in the Chinese capital. They pledged to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and to prohibit all heavily polluting vehicles by December 31. And, perhaps most controversially, they threatened to ban fireworks displays in honor of Chinese New Year.

But while Beijing’s air pollution has received disproportionate media cover (including a viral story about televised sunrises), it isn’t the only city facing this environmental problem. Indeed, several cities in Iran, Pakistan, and India report comparable–or worse–air pollution levels. North American cities are not immune either. Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley are notorious for smog, caused by vehicle emissions, manufacturing, and farming. Furthermore, despite significant improvements over the last 50 years, Pittsburgh continues to register high pollution levels due to coal combustion and heavy industry.

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The effects of this pollution are hard to swallow. Studies indicate that high concentrations of air pollution can trigger irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; as well as coughing and wheezing. It can exacerbate heart and lung problems, including asthma. And, after long-term exposure, it can increase the risk of cancer and mortality. Consequently, experts maintain that Alleghany County (home of Pittsburgh) is in the top 2% for cancer risk in the United States. They also estimate that the life expectancy in Beijing is 5 – 6 years lower than in China’s southern cities.

The environmental effects of air pollution are troubling as well. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain and eutrophication, impacting biodiversity. Chlorofluorocarbons and halons accelerate the depletion of the protective ozone layer. Toxic pollutants lead to reproductive problems and disease in animals and aquatic life. And greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, causing climate change.

These human and environmental effects compel us to act. As individuals, we can reduce our emissions by conserving energy, recycling, and limiting vehicle use. But a large-scale reduction in air pollution will require “much wider policies by national and international authorities”. The recent announcements in China are encouraging, as are the EPA’s efforts to implement a Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and a New Source Performance Standard (to limit CO2 emissions). Society must continue to demand such actions, and ensure their realization. Then we can all breathe a little easier.

For more information on air pollution, please contact the Clean Air Task Force, the Coalition for Clean Air, Breathe LA, or our partners, Clean Air Cool Planet and the American Lung Association in California.

Flickr Photo Credit: Kim Seng