Hoping to position the United States to take the lead in global negotiations later this year to combat climate change, President Barack Obama yesterday unveiled a bold plan to slash emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from power stations at home by almost a third within fifteen years.
Detailing the new regulations, dubbed America’s ‘Clean Power Plan’, Mr Obama asserted that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future, the future generations, than the changing climate”. He noted that hitherto the federal government had never attempted to curb CO2 from power plants.
“This is one of those rare issues, because of its magnitude, because of its scope, that if we don’t get it right, we may not be able to reverse, we may not be able adapt sufficiently,” Mr Obama said. “There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change…the science tells us we have to do more.” He warned: “We only get one planet. There is no Plan B.”
The landmark proposal, the biggest climate change measure ever attempted by the US, triggered an instant political and legal backlash as several states prepared to challenge the rules in the courts and Republican presidential runners accused Mr Obama of declaring war on the already hurting coal sector.
It means that climate change will take centre-stage in the coming presidential election. In 2012, it barely featured. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, had already stated her support for the emissions plan. “It will need defending. Because Republican doubters and defeatists - including every Republican candidate for president – won’t offer any credible solution,” she said.
Whereas an earlier version of the plan required a 30 per cent nationwide cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, the final iteration toughens that target to 32 per cent. Unchanged is the pledge Mr Obama will take to final negotiations for a global United Nations treaty on climate change in Paris in December to cut overall emissions from all sources of pollution by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon lauded the “visionary leadership” of Mr Obama. “We believe that this plan shows the United States determination to address global warming while also saving money and growing economy,” Stephane Dujarric, his spokesman, said.
The power-plant rules as written would force US energy companies to retire hundreds of coal-fired plants across the country, a potentially devastating blow to the coal sector. States with big coal interests, notably Wyoming, Kentucky and West Virginia, are set to lead the effort to derail them.
The plan also puts an expanded emphasis on renewable sources of energy in place of coal and increasingly also of natural gas, putting the US on course to derive 28 per cent of its power from sources like solar and wind by 2030, compared to 22 per cent in an earlier draft.
“Climate change will not be solved by grabbing power from states or slowly hollowing out our economy," Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor said at the weekend. The National Mining Association formally requested that the plan be put on holding pending the outcome of legal challenges to it.
It isn’t clear that Republicans promising to fight the new regulations will necessarily be on the right side of popular American opinion. A New York Times polls conducted in January suggested that two thirds of Americans are likely to favour politicians willing to address climate change.
President Obama’s announcement came as more than 20 wildfires raged across California in a fire season exacerbated by climate change and by a devastating drought, now deep into its fourth year. The Rocky Fire, some 110 miles north of San Francisco, grew to 54,000 acres over the weekend, destroying two dozen homes and threatening many thousands more.
One fire captain was killed last week as he tackled a separate northern California blaze. In all, more than 8,000 firefighters are now tackling wildfires statewide. On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, saying that the drought has “turned much of the state into a tinderbox.”
As he approaches the twilight of his two-term presidency, Mr Obama has increasingly turned to the powers of his own office to enact his agenda sidelining Congress. While the strategy, similarly employed to enact changes in immigration law, inevitably invites legal challenges, he has shown growing confidence that in the end the courts will side with him.
He hopes that setting tougher pollution limits at home will give him the moral high ground in Paris in December where a new global UN emissions accord is due to be signed. It is a startling turn-around from the days when the US was widely regarded as a laggard on climate change issues, thanks in part to its failure to join the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, the first major international accord to cut emissions.
President Obama decided that the only way to bring the US in line was to have the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, draft and then impose mandatory emissions cuts after the failure of his earlier attempt to persuade Congress to pass a sweeping cap-and-trade law that would have sought to achieve the same aim by encouraging states to cut emissions by buying and selling pollution credits.
Officials insist that the regulations will nonetheless still give individual states plenty of time and leeway to explore preferred ways to attain emissions targets that will be assigned to each of them, including accepting cap-and-trade solutions if they so choose.
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