Why Obama’s epic climate plan isn’t such a big deal – Politico

The carbon regulations
that President Obama is unveiling today sound like they’ll be a bit stronger
than the toothless draft rules he unveiled last year. That doesn’t mean they’ll be strong. And it certainly
doesn’t mean they’ll be “the strongest action ever taken to combat climate
change,” as The New York Times breathlessly referred to them in its news pages yesterday morning.

It’s not yet clear exactly what they’ll be, because so far the Obama
administration has only revealed some non-binding national goals, not the hard emissions
targets that states will be required to meet. But the early leaks suggest that
the Clean Power Plan will require the electricity sector to decarbonize
slightly more than it would have under the draft plan. The sector’s emissions
are expected to drop 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, up from 30 percent in
the draft. The plan now anticipates renewable energy to rise to 28 percent of
the grid’s capacity by 2030, instead of 22 percent, and coal to drop to 27
percent of capacity, instead of 31 percent.

That’s nice, but by the end of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy
Finance, the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated
reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other
words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is
expected to slow over the next 15
years. What, did you think the strongest action ever taken to combat climate
change would actually accelerate the nation’s efforts to combat climate change?

The final rule will also delay the first deadline for states to
meet interim targets from 2020 to 2022, a significant walkback in a plan that
Obama, cueing the Times, called “the biggest, most important step we’ve taken
to combat climate change.”

If you’re really ranking them, the Clean Power Plan is at best the
fourth-strongest action that Obama has taken to combat climate change, behind
his much-maligned 2009 stimulus package, which poured $90 billion into clean energy and jump-started a
green revolution; his dramatic increases in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which should reduce our oil consumption by 2
million barrels per day; and his crackdown on mercury and other air pollutants,
which has helped inspire utilities to retire 200 coal-fired power plants in just five years. The new carbon regulations
should help prevent backsliding, and they should provide a talking point for
U.S. negotiators at the global climate talks in Paris, but the 2030 goals would
not seem overly ambitious even without new limits on carbon.

 Take the goals for coal. Plants that emitted nearly 600 million tons of carbon
have been retired or scheduled for retirement since 2005, but at a briefing
yesterday, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said the
total reductions for the sector by 2030 are only anticipated to be 870 million
tons. So most of the reductions have already been achieved. Reducing coal to 27
percent of our power capacity by 2030 would be significant, since it was about
50 percent in 2005 and is still nearly 40 percent. But the coal industry is in
shambles—another major producer, Alpha Natural Resources, is expected to file
for bankruptcy today—and the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has met
or exceeded all its goals since its launch in 2010, has set a goal of retiring
the entire U.S. coal fleet by 2030. If coal still provides 27 percent of our
power in 15 years, it’s hard to imagine us meeting any of Obama’s larger
climate goals.

The starkest change in the EPA’s numbers between the draft and final versions
of the new rule was its increased expectations for renewable energy, which
prompted Republicans like Jeb Bush to denounce the plan as a disastrous assault
on America’s pocketbooks. But as McCarthy had basically admitted to me, the expectations for renewables in the draft plan were absurdly
low, largely because they were based on the U.S. government’s routinely ludicrous energy forecasts. In fact the draft plan’s bar was so low
that five states had already achieved their 2030 goals. McCarthy suggested
yesterday that the revisions have less to do with substantive changes in the
plan than with a belated recognition of America’s renewables boom: “We have
larger amounts of renewables that are anticipated to be in the energy mix
regardless of this rule.” Clearly, EPA will raise the bar, but as wind and
solar prices continue to plummet and installations continue to soar, a truly
strong plan would raise the bar a lot higher.

Nevertheless, the new plan is already being hailed by environmentalists,
denounced by industry, and hyped by the media as a bombshell. It doesn’t fit
the narrative to suggest that the plan is really kind of eh. It only fits
the available facts.


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