Climate change regulations have been making big headlines lately. Near the end of June, the Supreme Court issued a decision limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to cap carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants. A couple weeks later, the Senate passed a long-stalled federal climate bill that aims to dramatically reduce national greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite these ups and downs in the news cycle, we at Greenlink want to take a step back, provide some history behind the decisions, explain how they’ll impact city and state climate work, and reiterate that the clean energy transition can’t — and won’t — stop. The actions that lead to better outcomes happen on the ground, in local communities. But first, let’s set the scene for these new policies.
Back in 2015, the countries of the world (192 countries plus the European Union) adopted the Paris Agreement with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent the worst impacts of climate change (read: extreme storms, heat waves, and droughts and the resulting social stresses they would cause). The U.S. pledged to lower its emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The Obama Administration developed the Clean Power Plan as the country’s main tool for reaching these goals since it allowed the EPA to set state limits for greenhouse gases from power plants. It created incentives to use clean energy options like energy efficiency to achieve the regulatory targets. But the plan never took effect. Action at the federal level continued to stall.
Jump forward seven years to June’s Supreme Court decision – which landed like a sucker punch. What the court did was revisit the already defunct Clean Power Plan, taking issue with how EPA would have regulated power sources and their emissions under the plan. Only Congress has the power to make such consequential decisions, said the ruling, which meant the Clean Power Plan was once and for all buried and dead.
That said, hope is not lost. The good news, explains Frank Rambo, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, is that the decision does not affect the basic authority or responsibility of EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. The EPA can still set emissions limits based on available technologies, possibly like carbon capture and storage. So, in a state like West Virginia, with deep connections to the fossil fuel industry, they would still have to reduce emissions, but they wouldn’t have to retire their coal-fired electric power plants if those plants could hit carbon performance targets. And it’s worth noting that the cost of renewables will make them attractive even for states like West Virginia.
“The primary action on clean energy and climate will continue to be at the state and regional level,” assures Rambo, “Yet, this progress could receive a boost if Congress and the President sets a national CO2 limit.”
On Friday, August 12, 2022 – more than three decades since scientists first warned about climate change – the U.S. passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, committing the country to 40 percent emissions reductions by 2030. It is the country’s most ambitious climate change bill, and can help direct funding and resources in the right direction. Solar and wind power will become cheaper. Electric vehicles and infrastructure will possibly surge. And opportunities for environmental justice victories will come forward.
For Greenlink, this means the neighborhoods and cities we work with should have greater access to affordable, clean energy options. It means healthier neighborhoods and cities. It means a more equitable future. It means we’re a big step closer to a clean and more just world.
“I recently looked at the latest numbers from U.S. Energy Information Administration, and levels CO2 emissions have gone down 50 percent in the power sector in the six southern states that SELC covers (traditionally fossil-fuel dependent) in 15 years between 2005 to 2020,” says Rambo. “We’re not going to get next 50 percent the same way; it does give me hope we will get it done.”