How Far Does Obama’s Clean Power Plan Go in Slowing Climate Change?
The U.S. energy transition will continue under the new plan, but it needs to move even faster
By David Biello on August 6, 2015
“There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change,” Pres. Barack Obama said in unveiling the administration’s Clean Power Plan at the White House on August 3. “The science tells us we have to do more.”
An analysis by Scientific American suggests that the president is right: the Clean Power Plan alone is not enough. The plan, which goes into effect in 2022 and aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030, will lock in an energy transition that is already underway. But the roughly 1,000 fossil fuel–fired power plants in the U.S. will largely continue to operate as usual, using some combination of efficiency improvements, emissions trading and offsets to meet Clean Power Plan state targets.
“Coal and natural gas will remain the two leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S.” the plan admits. Together, the fossil fuels are anticipated to provide roughly 60 percent of U.S. electricity in 2030, or just 7 percent less than the amount generated from those same fuels in 2014. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects natural gas to predominate, displacing coal as the number-one fuel for power generation.
But natural gas has already displaced coal over the past decade, cuttingU.S. CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by roughly 16 percent. That’s half of the ultimate total reduction the Obama administration expects under the Clean Power Plan—a full seven years before the program even begins. In other words, the plan is really a way to ensure that the U.S. power industry doesn’t backslide into more polluting forms of electricity generation.
The plan relies on three basic options to lock in and drive future reductions: improving the efficiency with which power plants burn coal;swapping natural gas for coal; or replacing electricity generated from burning fossil fuels with electricity generated from renewable resources, such as the wind, water, sun and geothermal heat. Such shifts lead the EPA to project the full 32 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. “The nerdier way to say that is that we’ll be keeping 870 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution out of our atmosphere,” Obama said.
That is significant. But it is also not enough. Here’s what the plan delivers versus what climate scientists say we need: