Rhein on Energy and Climate

After one year of intensive consultations with stakeholders the US Environmental Protection Agency has presented a 645 page (!) proposal containing the rules for C02 emissions that existing power plants will have to respect in the future. When adopted they will lead to a 30% fall of emissions from electricity generation until 2030, compared to 2005.

This proposal will be another US government executive ruling since the Administration had to abandon its hopes for passing climate legislation in the Congress in 2008.

Since 2009, US strategy focuses on the two main sources of C02 emissions, power generation and transport and is operating largely through tough efficiency standards carefully prepared with the stakeholders in view of facilitating their implementation.

For the power sector, which accounts for 38% of US C02 emissions, the rules for both existing and new power plants define the amount of C02 emissions allowed for generating one megawatt hour electricity.

The new ruling is likely to accelerate the on going trend toward gas-fired power plants. Coal power plants will only be able to survive through major efficiency improvements, which might not pay considering the average age of 40 years of some 800 existing coal power plants.

Resistance against the new proposal will therefore come primarily from the coal industry and the states depending on coal-powered electricity generation, though the industry had been warned by the 2013 rules for new power plants which are now being applied to existing ones.

To alleviate the resistance against its new rules the EPA invites each state to prepare, until June 2016, a plan for implementing the new rules that should take into account the energy mix and the efficiency of power industry. States will be free to choose the most suitable instruments for reaching the new standards: enhancing energy efficiency of the power plants, encouraging utilities to help customers reduce their electricity consumption, invest in solar, wind or nuclear power, establish carbon cap and trade systems or join existing ones.

The new proposals are not very ambitious, compared to EU emission targets and US annual per capita emissions of 14 tons. By 2030, total US C02 output will be only 6% lower than in 2005 as a result of the electricity package. That should be easy to achieve in view of the ongoing fall of emissions, due to the recession and rising energy efficiency.

But considering other measures under way, in particular in the automotive sector, total US emissions should be down by more than quarter until 2030 compared to 2005, considering the US objective of reducing them by 17% until 2020. That is a respectable score considering where the USA comes from!

The new rules will change expectations. When they enter into force in 2016 US industry and citizens should finally wake up to the reality that the government are serious with tackling the worst long-term challenge. This in turn should boost investments in alternative power generation and energy efficiency. The US public will finally start learning to do with less electricity as they have already with less fuel consumption of cars.

The risk of a backlash remains. Companies and states most affected might contest the legality of the new rulings, and Republicans might even question the legality of the Environmental Protection Agency. But mainstream thinking seems to be switching toward more climate protection and energy independence after realising the full impact of increasingly damaging climate catastrophes.

Unfortunately, the new proposals are unlikely to give a powerful boost to the 2015 negotiations for an effective international climate pact with binding obligations for all countries. Major Western countries like Japan, Canada or Australia may come under some pressure; but China, Russia, India, Indonesia or Brazil – the really big emitter countries – will hardly feel impressed as long as US citizens continue to emit 2-3 times more C02 per citizen.

China will only wake up to the realities of climate change when its damage for health and the economy will really hurt and when the masses will take to the streets and protest against intolerable environmental conditions. This moment will come. The government has recognised the need to act, however slowly.

Committed political leadership that sees the dangers ahead and has the guts to act on its own without waiting for 200 countries to join is more desperately needed than ever.

That is what Obama has shown and why Humanity should be grateful to him.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 10/6/2014

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