Acting on Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan

We write this op-ed to express our frustration at the recent Supreme Court decision to block the Clean Power Plan, an important piece of climate change legislation that had the potential to drastically reduce U.S. carbon emissions. We strongly encourage Pennsylvania legislators to follow through on their state’s commitment to reduce emissions regardless of the court decision, and we will be bringing our opinions with us to Harrisburg on April 4 for the Power Dialog. In this article, we will frame the importance of the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in light of the recent COP21 conference in Paris, outline how the plan works, and then explain why it is so important for states to follow through with it, and how Pennsylvania in particular can achieve its targets.

Environmental policy and discussions on climate change have been part of the geopolitical sphere for decades, with the first World Climate Conference occurring in Geneva in February 1979. At the second World Climate Conference, delegates called for the creation of a global treaty on climate change. This prompted the United Nations General Assembly and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to produce the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty in which member states agreed to work towards stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations, in March 1994. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC made up of the member states, which have now grown to include 195 countries. The COP has met annually since 1995 to discuss past, current, and futures steps towards achieving the UNFCCC’s overall goal of greenhouse gas stabilization.

The 21st Conference of the Parties was held from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, 2015 outside of Paris, France. This was the first COP in over 20 years where negotiators met to actually decide on a global target for climate warming reductions and to set legally binding instruments. The conference was seen as somewhat of a last hope in climate policy. The Paris Agreement was developed by 196 nations and will go into effect this April if at least 55 countries sign it and adopt it into their own nation-specific legal systems. The main goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius past post-industrial levels. There are, however, no country-specific goals or any mechanism to enforce this objective in the Paris Agreement. For instance, before COP21, 146 countries drafted and submitted their  INDCs, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” with their plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so time spent at the conference wouldn’t be wasted on arguing how each country should contribute. All of these intended efforts would still allow the world to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius. Though much is left unanswered as to exactly how greenhouse gases will be reduced, many have heralded COP21 as a turning point, as it serves as a signal to the world that it is time to change the energy sector to support renewables.

The Clean Power Plan was cited by many U.S. delegates at the Paris conference as an internal strategy for the U.S. to meet the COP21 agreement. The plan, unveiled on Aug. 3, 2015 by President Obama and the EPA, is the first national legislation in U.S. history that sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the largest source of emissions in the U.S. The Clean Power Plan sets individual state-by-state emission reduction targets based on the different electricity generation mechanisms states already have in place, as well as the affordability and feasibility of implementing new technologies in each state. Each individual state must now come up with its own plan to reduce emissions through investing in clean energy, natural gas, nuclear power, and energy efficiency, and moving away from coal fired plants. They can also use cap-and-trade or carbon pricing mechanisms to fulfill their requirements. Obviously, some of these pathways to meet the targets are dramatically better for people and the environment than others. Originally, states had until Sept. 6 of this year to submit an initial plan, and plans had to be finalized by Sept. 8, 2016. Overall, the Clean Power Plan aims to achieve a 32 percent emission reduction from power plants by 2030, and a 30 percent increase in renewable technologies. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the plan, while reducing emissions, could also lead to $115 billion in savings for consumers between 2020 and 2030, the creation of tens of thousands of renewable energy jobs, and numerous health benefits.

However, early this February, the Supreme Court indefinitely stalled the implementation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan until legal challenges are resolved. The plan was integral to the US securing the Paris Agreement in December of last year, but without follow-through of the plan domestically, the US will certainly fall short of the standards set forth in the document. Although coal stocks have been tanking over the past year and several large American coal companies have filed for bankruptcy, the Supreme Court’s decision may cause that trend to slow and push the arrival of new regulations further into the future. But the strong measures of the Clean Power Plan might share a similar strategy to that of the Paris Agreement, a strategy of agreeing to ambitious changes to fight climate change while only implementing limited incremental carbon-mitigating changes in reality. Domestically speaking, the future of the Clean Power Plan will depend on a candidate who acknowledges the reality of climate change winning the White House in November. But the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia just two weeks after this decision has added another unknown into the equation. The future of the Clean Power Plan may well depend on whether the Senate will consider—let alone approve—of President Obama’s appointment of Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court.

We strongly encourage Pennsylvania legislators to follow through on the Clean Power Plan, regardless of the Supreme Court’s February decision or the outcome of President Obama’s Supreme Court Justice nomination. The CPP is especially important because the UNFCCC’s only enforcement mechanism is “naming and shaming,” so if individual governments do not choose to act, the recommendations made at COP21 are unlikely to be realized. If the US falls through on its commitments, or appears unlikely to fulfill them, it will demotivate other nations from pursuing ambitious mitigation plans.

Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy is facilitating a series of “Power Dialogs” in state capitals for students to pressure states to meet their targets by increasing renewables and carbon prices instead of increasing fracking and nuclear power. A delegation of Swarthmore students will be bringing these thoughts to the Harrisburg Power Dialog on April 4.


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