Editorial: Obama’s Clean Power Plan takes aim at climate change

Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2015

President Barack Obama last week announced one of the most significant efforts to control pollution in the nation’s history, with his Clean Power Plan calling for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to help curb global warming.

The new federal rule requires states to submit plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 2018 to achieve a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. The plan — if it survives the inevitable political and legal challenges — will change how electricity is produced in the U.S., with a shift away from coal and a heavier reliance on natural gas and renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

Coal-fired power plants produce about 40 percent of the country’s electricity, down from half a few years ago. That is expected to decline to 27 percent by 2030 as a result of the new rule. Power plants make up the largest single source of the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming, accounting for about one-third of the emissions in the U.S.

“Climate change is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore,” Obama said in announcing his Clean Power Plan. “It’s time for America, and the world, to act on climate change.”

Obama is correct in targeting global warming as a centerpiece of his final 18 months in office. Though his plan to cut carbon pollution comes with an $8.4 billion price tag, scientists agree that it is past time to act — 2014 was the hottest year on record globally, and the 10 warmest years all occurred since 1998.

Michael Rawlins, an assistant professor in the department of geosciences and manager of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, applauded Obama’s plan. He said that while “the emissions targets may appear difficult for some states,” overall they are not “overly ambitious.”

In fact, Rawlins said the 32 percent reduction may fall short of what is necessary to avoid the damage from climate change his department already is measuring. “It’s a step in the right direction, but I believe that sharper emissions cuts will be necessary in the coming decades in order to limit warming,” he said.

That was echoed by an Aug. 6 report in Scientific American, which concluded that the president’s plan “is really a way to ensure that the U.S. power industry doesn’t backslide into more polluting forms of electricity generation. ... As the plan notes, climate change has become the most pressing environmental problem facing the U.S., especially since ‘the full warming from any given concentration of CO2 will not be realized for several centuries, underscoring that emission activities today carry with them climate commitments far into the future.’ This plan is likely the most the U.S. can do given the current political realities and therefore is an important step, but that doesn’t mean it’s sufficient.”

The timing of Obama’s announcement is significant in positioning the U.S. as a leader in reducing emissions to gain leverage with other nations whose support he seeks for a global climate treaty to be considered when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets later this year in Paris. “We’re positioning the United States as an international leader on climate change,” said one Obama senior adviser.

Paul Bledsoe is an energy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration. Bledsoe said the U.S. goal in cutting emissions “indicates that the world’s largest economy is providing big regulatory incentives for clean energy and penalizing fossil fuels. It’s that basic underlying economic signal that tells governments around the world that it’s time to act.”

Added Rawlins, the UMass scientist: “Solving the climate crisis will require the cooperation of all nations. Reducing the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases will require reductions worldwide ... The U.S. alone cannot solve this crisis.”

Meanwhile, some American states, including Massachusetts, already are demonstrating that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be accomplished without the catastrophic results predicted by Republican presidential candidates like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who said Obama’s regulations “run over state governments, will throw countless people out of work and increases everyone’s energy prices.”

Massachusetts adopted a Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008 with goals of reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. “Our plans are more aggressive than the federal plan and we’re well on our way,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst.

Two of the major electricity suppliers in Massachusetts — National Grid and Eversource — said they support the president’s plan and already are taking steps to reduce emissions. National Grid cited its reduction of total emissions by 65 percent from 1990 levels, and Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress said it “is committed to tapping clean sources like hydropower and cleaner-burning natural gas and other renewable sources.”

Obama acted with urgency in addressing climate change, and that is the kind of can-do support his plan deserves.


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