Obama's power plan won't save the world, but may save climate talks


On Monday, the administration of President Barack Obama was to release a plan to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. power plants by almost a third over the next 15 years.

On its own, the rule will not be nearly enough to save the world from global warming.

The U.S. is responsible for about a seventh of the world’s emissions, calculations based on World Resources Institute data show. And of that fraction, carbon-spewing power plants account for less than half. Developing countries such as China and India are expected to produce most of the growth in emissions for the rest of the century.

Think of Obama’s Clean Power Plan more as an ice-breaker. Its main accomplishment may be sending a signal to the rest of the world’s leaders as they seek to hammer out an international climate deal this December, said Paul Bledsoe, an energy expert for Washington-based research center The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Getting the world’s largest economy on board, after decades of resisting greenhouse-gas cuts, will energize the United Nations-led talks in Paris, Bledsoe said. That’s key as the U.N. struggles to finish an agreement that would, for the first time, commit all nations to reining in global warming.

Obama’s final rule aims to accomplish a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from the nation’s fleet of power plants by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, against 30 percent in the EPA’s original 2014 proposal. Emissions are already down 15 percent from that peak.

The plan will accomplish this in part by giving states credit for solar or wind projects that break ground over the next few years, before the rule takes effect in 2022. It will also force utilities to run natural gas plants more or encourage customers to use less electricity.

Power generation, specifically the burning of coal to make electricity, is the biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., and until now there was no cap on those emissions.

“The way electricity is being produced is being significantly transformed,” said Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club. “It will amount to a move away from fossil fuels toward clean energy.”

Alone, Obama’s new restrictions on coal-fired power plants are “not even close” to enough, Bledsoe said. “But it sends a very powerful signal that renewable energy and energy efficiency are more valuable than fossil fuels per kilowatt-hour and ultimately, the market is going to respond.”

U.S. policymakers are “showing that they really are ready to make some serious reductions at home” and that message will help bring about change in other countries, Kevin Kennedy, deputy director of the World Resources Institute’s U.S. climate initiative. It would be “a mistake” to focus just on the emissions reduction that any particular rule delivers and not the broader effect on the climate talks, he said.

The U.S. power-plant rules are already drawing tentative praise from one of the parties to the United Nations climate talks, the small island nations that are threatened by rising sea levels caused by warmer temperatures. In a statement released July 31, the Alliance of Small Island States welcomed the regulations.

“U.S. leadership is not only essential for a successful outcome in Paris, but it is also indispensable to managing climate change over the long term,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, the group’s chairman and the minister of environment and energy in the Maldives.

“We have already seen the Obama Administration step up their climate diplomacy this year and I can tell you it has been most appreciated by the international community.”