Franz Litz: Is the U.S. Moving on Climate Change? Yes, Slowly. | WAMC

Franz Litz: Is the U.S. Moving on Climate Change? Yes, Slowly.

Apr 3, 2012

In the noise surrounding the Supreme Court arguments over ObamaCare last week you probably missed the latest, small bit of progress in the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change.  Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the first draft regulations to regulate carbon pollution from new power plants.

To tackle climate change, we need to focus on reducing carbon pollution across our entire economy.  Existing power plants are responsible for about 34% of all U.S. carbon pollution each year. Yes, more than a third of our heat-trapping, global warming causing pollution comes from existing coal and natural gas-fired power plants.

Regulating new power plants, as the Administration has proposed to do, does nothing to reduce emissions from existing plants, but it does prevent new dirty plants.  As a legal matter, the step taken by EPA last week is a necessary precursor to regulating existing plants in the future.  Still, regulation of existing power plants is not likely in this election year.

Until last week, the Obama Administration was focused almost exclusively on global warming pollution from cars and trucks.  Cars and trucks are responsible for about a quarter of all U.S. carbon pollution and have been the fastest growing segment of U.S. emissions. 

President Obama has made good strides in reducing carbon pollution for cars and trucks.  In fact, the United States is on the cusp of a clean car revolution like never before seen.  Obama’s Department of Transportation and EPA have jointly proposed standards that will result in achieving the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon on average across all cars and light trucks by model year 2025.

That’s big news for cars and trucks.  But until last week the progress stopped there. In fairness, EPA has been focused on other pollution from power plants, including the air toxic mercury, acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide and smog-causing nitrogen oxides.  Still, last week’s action is long overdue and should have come sooner.

In an election year, though, issuing even a small draft regulation like the one to cover new power plants can be an act of courage.  That is why voices of support for EPA’s action are so important.  From New York, New York Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens issued a statement of support, as did Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Ken Kimmel and Connecticut DEP’s Commissioner Dan Esty.  New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also sent EPA praise. 

When President Obama was swept into office on a wave of big hopes, those of us focused on reducing global warming pollution allowed ourselves to hope right along with others pushing big things like health care reform. Ultimately the hopes for big action on climate change gave way to incremental change.

So EPA has come around to regulating global warming pollution from new power plants. This action makes sense and is long overdue. But hope for real action on power plants—action that tackles existing plants—will depend on Obama’s reelection.  It may not be a big hope like our hopes from 2008, but this one is at least more easily realized.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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