Conservatives in US Supreme Court deal blow to climate action 

Joe Biden administration’s efforts to decarbonise economy held hostage by Republican majority in Supreme Court

By Avantika Goswami
Published: Friday 01 July 2022

The United States Supreme Court struck down June 30, 2022 a plan by the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate emissions from power plants. 

The EPA proposal would see the agency set standards for emissions from existing (coal and gas) power plants through a “broad system of cap-and-trade regulations” under the Clean Air Act, accelerating a transition to renewable energy sources. 

The Supreme court voted 6-3 to limit the EPA’s powers in this regard, as it will threaten business interests in the power sector.

“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” said Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, in the order. 

Wealthy and conservative Republicans, who hold a majority in the Supreme Court, are responsible for the decision. The Republican Party (also known as the Grand Old Party or GOP), a regressive force, is skittish about government control over too many aspects of the economy but did not hesitate to use its Supreme Court dominance recently to orchestrate a near-end to abortion rights in the US and thus control a woman’s right to choose. 

The EPA decision titled West Virginia versus the EPA is the next blow to social and environmental justice that will disproportionately hurt the poor and vulnerable. 

In response to the EPA decision, grassroots climate justice group Sunrise Movement stated that the Supreme Court “was bought and paid for by GOP extremists”. 

“Biden must expand the court and use all of his executive authority to justly transition our country to 100 per cent renewable energy,” the group urged.

The US is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the biggest polluter taking into account emissions since the pre-industrial period to the present day. The country’s GHG emissions from the electricity and heat sector was 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2018, close to double that of India’s 1.2 GtCO2e. 

The US citizens celebrated a new era of progressive environmental and climate action while voting in liberal Presidential candidate Democrat Joe Biden in 2021. It was seen as a salve to the four years of the Donald Trump administration, that rolled back decades-old environmental regulations, and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden had pledged to achieve a 100 per cent clean electricity sector by 2035. 

But the Biden administration’s efforts to decarbonise the country’s economy have been held hostage by Republicans and by centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who hails from West Virginia, and continues to profit from its highly polluting coal sector. The state is named in the new EPA decision as well. 

Biden’s climate proposals have been severely scaled down when they have come up against corporate interests, fossil fuel lobbies, Joe Manchin and the Republican Party. All these entities are keen to uphold the status quo of a polluting coal, oil and gas-fuelled energy sector that benefits the wealthiest and wreaks havoc on domestic air pollution and global GHG emissions. 

The signal from the US is troubling for international climate policy, as successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) signal extensive planetary damage unless GHG emissions and fossil fuel use are rapidly curbed. 

Other wealthy economies are already slowing down climate action and scrambling to ensure ‘energy security’ as the Russian war has thrown a wrench in the existing world energy order. 

Last week, Germany proposed that the Group-of-7 economies walk back on a pledge they had made previously to halt financing of fossil fuel projects abroad. At a multilateral level, the US cannot drown out calls of hypocrisy, as US Climate Envoy John Kerry pressures developing economies like India to reduce its coal dependence, while Republicans and Manchin back home resist every attempt at regulating fossil pollution. 

The developing world deserves ‘carbon space’ — the limited budget of carbon dioxide that can be emitted before the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming limit is breached. This can be ensured only when wealthy polluters like the US take the lead on reducing emissions rapidly and regulating its energy-related emissions is key to achieve this. 

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