Obama climate plan: too little, too late
For the first time, the US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to limit emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. The response has been predictable. Environment News Service notes: "Democrats and public health and environmental groups rejoiced in the proposal of a measure they have advocated for years to fight climate change, but Republicans cried doom, warning that the rule would destroy the American economy." The New York Times writes: "[E]nvironmental advocates praised the proposed rule for its breadth and reach while the coal industry attacked it as a symbol of executive overreach that could wreak economic havoc." The Daily Beast's Jason Mark dubbed the program "Obamacare for the Air" because both plans are "numbingly complex," "based on a market system," "likely to transform a key sector of the economy," and "guaranteed to be intensely polarizing." In other words, a market-based plan is being attacked by the right as green totalitarianism. This would be perverse enough if the plan's goals were anywhere close to sufficient to actually address the climate crisis—which, again predictably, they are not.
Power plants that burn fossil fuels account for roughly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. There are currently no national limits on carbon dioxide emissions, although limits are in place for levels of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution emitted by power plants. The Clean Power Plan, as it is being called, allows states various ways to meet its proposed carbon dioxide emissions cuts, including market-based carbon-trading programs such as those already in place in 10 states. The target for the cuts is 30% nationwide below 2005 levels by 2030.
It should be noted that the EPA plan was only drawn up due to what the Brookings Institute's Planet Policy blog calls the "legislative vacuum" on climate change. This prompted the "repurposing" of the Clean Air Act as a vehicle for climate change regulation—an idea first proposed back in March 2012, only to be revised and then re-proposed in autumn 2013, and only now apparently being finalized. Not exactly swift, decisive action. Especially given that the intervening period as seen Hurricane Sandy and other such omens of climate destabilization.
Relative to 2030 emissions projected from current trends, the drop in that year's U.S. CO2 emissions sought by the President is a painfully modest 355 million tonnes (metric tons). That equates to just 7% of total actual emissions from all sources last year (5313 million tonnes).
To be sure, the business-as-usual (no action) trajectory producing that 355 million tonne figure is mine, not the administration's. (At the time I wrote this the White House hadn’t translated its percentage target into metric tons of CO2.) I derive it below, and it's subject to argument. What's not debatable is that power plants are the low-hanging fruit in cutting CO2. That's because electricity-sector CO2 emissions can be cut relatively easily not just via the demand side (through energy efficiency and conservation) but also on the supply side (by converting from coal to gas, and from coal and gas to renewables). Indeed, as of last year, demand and supply steps by industry, household and government had already wrought a 15% reduction in U.S. power plant emissions from the president's 2005 base year (a drop of 361 million tonnes from 2414 million). By calling for only a second round of 15% cuts (355 million tonnes) from 2014 to 2030, 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, from 2005 to 2013).
In announcing the new plan, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said, "Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life. EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source—power plants." This revealingly portrays the institutionally misplaced priorities behind all official responses to the climate crisis. Putting aside the question of human health, "our economy and our way of life" are precisely what is driving destabilization of the biosphere. Viewing this destabilization as a threat to "our" institutions gets things precisely backwards: confusing cause and effect. And they are more accurately termed their institutions, because the machinery for planetary destruction was put in place by the ruling class, with no democratic input. We are not so sanguine that we can avert apocalypse through such technocratic measures as carbon trading, carbon taxing and greater efficiency without a public expropriation and radical transformation of that machinery...