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Climate Change

U.S. Proposes “Revolutionary” Carbon Emissions Rule

Power plants are the single largest sources of carbon pollution in the United States. Credit: Bigstock

WASHINGTON , Jun 2 2014 (IPS) - U.S. power plants would be required to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions by almost a third in coming decades, under a landmark proposal that constitutes President Barack Obama’s most significant attempt to counter climate change.

While the federal government has long regulated a spectrum of airborne pollutants from power plants, the rule marks the first time that carbon would be added to this list. That’s particularly important given carbon-dioxide’s outsized role in fuelling climate change, and the fact that the U.S. power sector is responsible for some 40 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, carbon alone accounts for more than four-fifths of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to government estimates.

“In that we’ve never had carbon pollution standards, this proposal is revolutionary,” Nikki Silvestri, executive director of Green For All, an advocacy group, told IPS. “If we can really make this rule work, and if it is enforced well, it could have the potential to phase in a clean-energy economy – and that’s really what we’re going for.”

The new proposal, unveiled Monday and known as the Clean Power Plan, would seek to bring down carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which proposed the rule, that’s equivalent to half of the emissions produced from powering every home in the United States for a year.

The plan does not necessitate action from the U.S. Congress, which has refused to touch any climate-related legislation since early on in Obama’s tenure. The administration has already tightened emissions regulations for future power plants as well as automobiles and transport trucks, though Monday’s announcement has received by far the most intense anticipation from both environmentalists and industry.

The 645-page proposal is twofold, laying out broad carbon-reduction goals but also leaving it up to each state to figure out how to meet those goals. As such, states would have available a variety of options, including bolstering efficiency, investing in renewable energies, fashioning a tax on carbon, building up so-called carbon-trading schemes, or phasing out older or coal-fired power plants.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal made up 39 percent of the U.S. energy mix last year, while hydropower and other renewables accounted for just 13 percent.

“The EPA’s proposal to limit carbon pollution from power plants for the first time ever is a giant leap forward in protecting the health of all Americans and future generations,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent watchdog group, said Monday.

“It sets fair targets for each state and empowers the states with the flexibility to craft the best local solutions, using an array of compliance tools. And if states embrace the huge energy efficiency opportunities, consumers will save on their electric bills and see hundreds of thousands of jobs created across the country.”

Still, the new rule would not actually bring U.S. emissions below levels urged by the United Nations.

“The targets aren’t ambitious enough for real emissions reduction,” Janet Redman, director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank, told IPS. “But they are a piece of the puzzle, and it would be a real win if this rule restricts emissions from coal-fired power plants.”

Environmental justice

While the global ramifications of Monday’s announcement will become clearer in coming months, the Obama administration has thus far sought to highlight the proposed rule’s domestic impact, especially in terms of public health.

Achieving the carbon-reduction goal by 2030 would also cut smog-producing pollution by a quarter, the government says. And those benefits would likely be felt in particular by African-American, Hispanic and low-income communities.

“This is about environmental justice, too, because lower income families and communities of colour are hardest hit,” Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA, said Monday in unveiling the rule’s details.

“Rising temperatures bring more smog, more asthma, and longer allergy seasons … The first year that these standards go into effect, we’ll avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks – and those numbers go up from there.”

McCarthy said that by reducing soot and smog, the administration’s plan will create climate and health-related benefits worth some 90 billion dollars in 2030, versus costs of around eight billion dollars a year. “For every dollar we invest in the plan, families will see seven dollars in health benefits,” she noted.

During a conference call hosted by public health groups on Monday, Obama noted that African-Americans are four times as likely as others to die of asthma, while Latinos are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalised for related problems. And according to Green For All’s Silvestri, some 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant.

“Thus far, people really aren’t connecting these health issues to pollution and to climate change – they just know that each of their kids has asthma,” she says. “So we really need to connect these dots for people, to focus on these things that are already affecting our communities every day and then explain how climate change is contributing.”

Some worry that such an effort could be undercut if the new EPA rule pushes states towards carbon-trading schemes, under which emissions permits can be bought and sold. While such systems do allow policymakers to establish overall caps on emissions, critics say carbon trading can actually help dirty industries resist change.

“While the idea is that such a programme makes it more economical for polluters to clean up their act, those that are the hardest to clean up can simply pay to continue polluting,” the Institute for Policy Studies’ Redman says.

“That’s a major problem for those living next to power plants – people of colour, poor communities and others who are already feeling the effects of this pollution.”

Following four months of public comment and what will certainly be extensive legal challenges, the EPA is slated to finalise the new carbon-emissions rule by June 2015. Thereafter, states would have until mid-2016 to finalise their own plans on compliance, though that deadline could be extended by another two years if requested.

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