Climate Change

US’ revised Clean Power Plan not ambitious enough

The final plan boasts of only a marginal difference in the amount of power generation-related emissions reduced until 2030

By Vijeta Rattani
Published: Thursday 06 August 2015
Credit: Leaflet CC BY-SA 3.0

The 2014 version of the US’ Clean Power Plan had proposed to cut carbon pollution of the power sector by 30 per cent by 2030. Compared with last year’s proposal, the revised and final Clean Power Plan aims to cut over 70 million tonnes more, which is 32 per cent below 2005 levels.

This marginal increase of 2 per cent is being hailed as the “game changer” by the US government. US President Barack Obama has called it "the biggest, most important step we have ever taken" to tackle climate change.

The plan is expected to help consumers save nearly US $85 a year on their energy bills in 2030. It is also billed to save enough energy to power 30 million homes, prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and lead to 30 per cent more renewable energy generation by 2030. The public health and climate benefits of the plan are estimated at $34 billion to $54 billion per year by 2030, outweighing its cost at $8.4 billion.

Ensuring compliance will be challenge

The plan relies on federal state partnership under which US states are expected to come up with their own plans and targets by September 2016 and are required to comply with the rules only by 2022. It would be challenging for the Obama administration to ensure compliance. Coal-dependent states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming and Indiana are vehemently opposing the plan because they fear it will cause a huge setback to their economies.

But the most important question remains: is the plan really ambitious? Is it enough action on the part of the US?

Pollution by power generation

The power sector is the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, the sector accounted for about 32 per cent of the total emissions of the country. Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity have increased by about 11 per cent since 1990 due to the increase in demand for electricity and dependence on fossil fuels for power generation.

According to British Petroleum (BP) statistics and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, the usage of coal has increased by 4.6 per cent in 2013 at 456 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe). In 2014, it rose again by 1.2 per cent.

It is evident that the US has not made enough efforts to cut coal consumption, in general and for power generation in particular.

The US plan does not talk about mechanisms for improved efficiency of power plants. Heat on Power (2015), a Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) publication, states that the percentage efficiency of coal-based power plants in the US is 36 per cent, less than that of the UK (38 per cent) and Nordic countries and Japan (41 per cent).

With lifestyles often driven by excess consumption, the US must also focus on solutions to transport emissions and wastage.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) of the US already include a weak economy-wide emission reduction of 26-28 per cent by 2025, relative to 2005 emission levels which is equivalent to only 14–17 per cent below 1990 levels.

The US is historically the world’s largest polluter and is responsible for 21 per cent of total global emissions from 1850-2011. The EU-28 has contributed to 18 per cent, China 11 per cent and Japan and India are responsible for 3 per cent each of the global contributions to historical emissions, according to a CSE factsheet on Global Carbon Budget 2014.

Thus, while evidence shows that the US must shoulder the maximum responsibility for harmful impacts on the climate, the country’s Clean Power Plan is actually only a small step towards curbing carbon pollution.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in a 2014 report, states that in order to restrict global warming to 2°C, the amount of emissions in 2030 should be between 46 to 48 GtCO2 equivalent. However, the Stern Report 2015 says that the emission reduction commitments of countries will result in around 59 GtCO2 equivalent of global emissions by that year, causing the world to miss the 2°C target.

As the biggest historical polluter and the country most capable of mitigating climate change, the US is expected to lead the efforts to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change on our planet.

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