The Obama administration has announced regulations that would cut the amount of carbon dioxide the US energy sector may emit by 30 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, the first ever national limits on the greenhouse gas introduced in the United States.
The new limits are designed to spur states to phase out reliance on coal-fired power, promote clean energy innovation and put the United States in a better position to influence other nations at upcoming United Nations climate talks. The new rules also realise a long-stated goal of the president, Barack Obama.
“For the sake of our families' health and for our kids' future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate,” said the EPA’s head, Gina McCarthy in announcing the plan. “The science is clear, the risks are clear, and the high costs of climate inaction keep piling up.”
President Obama has directed the EPA to introduce cuts of up to 30 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Photo: AFP
If adopted as expected in 2015, it would be the equivalent of removing two-thirds of cars and trucks from America’s roads, she said. According to EPA projections should the regulations come into effect as designed the use of coal for power production would fall by 25 to 27 per cent by 2025 and 30 to 32 per cent by 2030.
The regulations target energy production because it accounts for 40 per cent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Reaction to the announcement has been dramatic and the regulations, expected to come into effect next year, are expected to be the subject of a significant political battle.
Under pressure to change ... Emissions spew out of a coal-fired power station in Maryland. Photo: AFP
Addressing reporters via conference call President Obama emphasised the long-term significance of the announcement, saying, "This is something that is important for all of us, as parents, as grandparents, as citizens, as folks who care about the health of our families and also want to make sure that future generations are able to enjoy this beautiful blue ball in the middle of space that we're a part of.”
The former vice-president and climate change campaigner Al Gore described the announcement as “the most important step taken to combat the climate crisis in our country’s history,” while the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner described it in a statement as “nuts”.
The Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican of the coal state of Kentucky, called the plan "a dagger in the heart of the American middle class".
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy signs new emission guidelines. Photo: AP
"By imposing these draconian new rules on the nation's coal industry, President Obama and every other liberal lawmaker in Washington who quietly supports them is also picking regional favourites, helping their political supporters in states like California and New York while inflicting acute pain on states like Kentucky," he said.
In Australia, both Labor and Greens have applauded the Obama announcement, putting pressure on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to widen the emissions reduction target. The issue will loom ahead of talks next week between Mr Abbott and Mr Obama. Climate change is now also expected to have more prominence ahead of the G20 meeting to be hosted in Australia later this year.
Even before Ms McCarthy had finished her address an advertisement popped up on the Politico magazine website comparing the EPA unfavourably with terrorists and militias.
The chief executive of the coal industry lobby group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said, “the [Obama] administration for all intents and purposes is creating America’s next energy crisis.”
According to a report by the business advocacy group US Chamber of Commerce the regulations would cost the economy $US51 billion and eliminate 224,000 jobs each year until 2030 while forcing consumers to pay $US289 billion more for electricity over the same period.
Some environmental groups have criticised the goal as not being ambitious enough, because it measures reductions since 2005. America has already reduced its reductions by 9 per cent since then as a result of the natural gas fracking boom and the economic downturn.
“While a step forward, this rule simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path. The science on climate change has become clearer and more dire, requiring more aggressive action from the president,” said Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth.
Under the regulations each state would be set a reduction target based on its current energy mix, but would be left to chose how it managed to meet that target using methods including renewable energy, energy efficiency, demand response and cap-and-trade.
California has been used as a model of how cap-and-trade systems can reduce emissions, and its former Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger welcomed the announcement. “You only need to look at the decades of scientific research and at the epic droughts and superstorms to know that we can’t wait any longer to take action on climate change,” he said, reported the Washington Post.
The energy and resource analyst Rishikesh Ram Bhandary at Tufts University said though it was impossible to predict how significantly the regulations would slow climate change, the announcement was extremely significant in signalling to industry how serious the Obama administration was in wanting to cut emissions and increase investment in cleaner technologies.
He said if the regulations survived the coming political storm and included mechanisms to set even more ambitious targets as new technology became available, their impact could be far-reaching.
Aside from introducing tough new vehicle emissions standards the Obama administration has failed to introduce significant environmental reforms since his attempt to begin a nationwide cap-and-trade system during his first term was blocked by Republicans.
This attempt is more likely to succeed because under US law the EPA not only has the authority to act to curb pollution, but the responsibility to do so. A Supreme Court decision has already decided that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant, and so both the EPA and the President have emphasised that the new regulations would decrease particulate pollution and reduce asthma attack rates and hospital admissions.