US unveils flagship climate change plan

US beefs up targets to cut carbon pollution from power plants and scale up of clean energy in Obama legacy-defining plan

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

By Alex Pashley

President Barack Obama is to announce landmark standards to cut carbon pollution from power plants on Monday, as part of the country’s “moral obligation” to a warming planet.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy will join him in unveiling the finalised “clean power plan” at the White House; the US’ prime tool to fight climate change.

The regulatory body will set “flexible and achievable standards” through the country’s Clean Air Act for states to cut emissions from power plants by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030, according to a White House fact sheet circulated on Sunday.

That’s a slight increase on a proposed 30% figure released a year earlier to target power sector emissions, the leading source of American CO2. The curbs will slash some 800 million tons a year of CO2 from a nation that emits about 6 billion tons a year.

“We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged. The effects of climate change are already being felt across the nation,” the document said. “Taking action now is critical.”

The plan bids to create “tens of thousands of jobs while ensuring grid reliability” and deploy 30% more clean energy generation in 15 years.

It is a central plank of the US’ contribution to a global climate pact of at least a 26% cut in CO2 below 2005 levels by 2025. Almost 200 nations are expected to sign the first ever global warming agreement binding all to emissions cuts in December.

The move signals the decline of US coal, vehemently opposed by some lawmakers who say it will lead to large lay-offs and increase electricity bills.

The fossil fuel industry is expected to build on attempts to halt the plans before the ruling. Though NGOs are confident this “tsunami of litigation” won’t stand up in court.

Critics led by Senate majority leader and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell say the plan is a wild overreach by the executive branch and call for state-by-state defiance.

McCarthy, the EPA administrator, stressed critics were mistaken, with states able to cut carbon in whatever way they like.

“They are wrong… they were wrong in the 1990s when they opposed acid rain,” she said in a reporters briefing on Sunday. “We will see the same tired plays by the same special interest playbook.”

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The White House says the plan will save the average family $85 on their annual bill in 2030 and save enough energy to power 30 million more homes.

And it boasts large health benefits: cleaner air will avoid up to 3,600 deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children and 300,00 missed work and school days.

The EPA says the plans give more flexibility to states’ individual circumstances to meet the curbs, and opens a space for emission trading schemes in parallel with other states.

States must comply by 2022, giving them two years longer than earlier versions. While plans are due in September 2016, they can request an extension of up to two years.

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The administration has upped its projections for renewable energy’s shares in electricity generation. It eyes 28%, up from 22% as an early roll-out of technologies like solar and wind are incentivised under the plan, awarding states credits for projects generating electricity in 2020 and 2021.

Actions by the world’s second largest emitter send signals to the rest of the world on taking steps to confront man-made climate change, and “continues momentum” to a global pact.

“This rule enhances in important ways ability to achieve international commitments we have made in addition to supporting our 2020 an 2025 targets,” said Brian Deese, senior adviser to the President on energy and climate policy during the briefing.

The final rule addresses objections that the country’s would be more vulnerable to blackouts under a grid based on a greater share of renewables. A later compliance date and “reliability safety valve” create a framework that doesn’t set requirements for certain plants, but states, to smooth out fluctuations in supply.

The plan proposes stricter fuel and CO2 standards for trucks which could reduce 1 billion tons of carbon pollution, plus curbs on methane and hydrofluorocarbons.

This isn’t the end for climate change as far as Obama is concerned this year. Spokesperson Deese told reporters he would be making speeches on clean energy in Nevada shortly, at an Arctic summit in Alaska at the end of August and would discuss strategies with the Pope when they meet on 23 September.

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